African leaders have endorsed a plan to send a 3,300-strong force to wrest control of northern Mali from Islamist fighters, as fears grow over risks they pose to the region and beyond.
The African Union Peace and Security Council "has decided ... to endorse a harmonised concept of operations for the planned deployment of AFISMA, which is the African-led mission in support of Mali", said Ramtane Lamamra, the union's commissioner for peace and security.
The goal of the mission, endorsed by the AU on Tuesday, would be to "regain the occupied regions in the north of the country, dismantle the terrorist and criminal networks and restore effectively the authority of the state over the entire national territory", Lamamra said.
The plan had been first agreed on Sunday by members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
"We foresee 3,300 soldiers for a timeframe of one year," Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current ECOWAS chairman, told journalists on Sunday, after a summit in Nigerian capital Abuja.
The troops would come primarily from the 15-nation bloc, but may be supported by soldiers from other countries, he said.
Discussions also involved the potential training of 5,000 Malian troops, according to Ouattara.
Ouattara said he hoped UN Security Council approval could come in late November or early December, which would allow the force to be put in place days afterwards.
"We have countries that are offering battalions, others companies," he said.
The ECOWAS countries he named were Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo.
From outside ECOWAS, "Chad could also participate. We have had contacts with other countries - Mauritania, South Africa".
Dialogue, however, remains "the preferred option in the resolution of the political crisis in Mali".
"However, regarding the security situation, recourse to force may be indispensable in order to dismantle terrorist and transnational criminal networks that pose a threat to international peace and security," said a statement from ECOWAS leaders.
An ECOWAS source had said earlier that regional military chiefs were proposing a total of 5,500 troops, with about 3,200 from the West African bloc and the rest from elsewhere.
It was not clear whether heads of state had rejected the proposal or if the bloc would continue efforts to reach that level.
'Concretise their commitments'
Algeria, seen as important to any military operation, has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
While not a member of ECOWAS, Algeria is viewed as important due to its military capabilities, intelligence services and experience battling Islamist extremism, along with the long border it shares with Mali.
Representatives from countries outside ECOWAS were invited to Sunday's summit, including from Mauritania and Algeria, as well as South Africa and Morocco, which currently hold seats on the UN Security Council. Libya and Chad were also represented.
The final communique urged "member states to concretise their commitments to provide military and logistical contributions to the ECOWAS military efforts".
ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo has said the bloc should pursue a dual approach of dialogue and military pressure.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy and ex-president of the European Commission, has said every effort will be made to avoid military intervention.
However, some analysts have questioned whether a negotiated solution is possible with Islamists intent on establishing a theocratic state.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in Bamako in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing their version of strict sharia law, meting out punishments including stonings and destroying World Heritage shrines.