African leaders have met in Mali’s capital to prepare their plans for a military intervention in the country’s volatile north, which is controlled by al-Qaeda-linked rebel groups.
Friday’s high-level meeting brought together ministers from the countries bordering Mali, the African Union chairperson and envoys from the United Nations.
The United States, France and Britain have said they will offer logistical support, but the invasion needs to be led by African troops.
On the sidelines of the meeting, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, head of the African Union commission, told reporters that the entrenchment of “terrorist” groups was a threat that could not be ignored.
She said the danger extended far beyond Africa.
Dlamini-Zuma’s comments came as Dioncounda Traore, Mali’s president, said on Friday that not a second should be lost to recapture the desert north of his country from armed Islamists.
“We must not lose a single second. This is an emergency, this is a race against time,” said Traore in a speech to the foreign officials.
The summit comes a week after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving West African nations 45 days to lay out details for military intervention.
The vast region the size of France fell under control of radical Islamist groups in the chaos that followed a March coup in the country that was once considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies.
Mali’s neighbours, fearing that the area could become the same type of haven for al-Qaeda Islamists that Afghanistan was a decade ago, are keen to force the Islamist fighters out.
In the months that they have been in control of the northern region, the fighters have tried to enforce sharia law, arresting unveiled women, stoning to death unmarried couples and amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, according to residents and rights groups.
They have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
Traore thanked the international community, and notably the African Union, the United Nations and former colonial master France, for their support since the start of the crisis.
“Thanks to your support and solidarity our country, Mali, has never felt alone,” he said.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has said that it could send up to 3,000 troops to recapture the area.
The number-two EU diplomat Pierre Vimont, France’s envoy to the Sahel Jean Felix-Paganon, and UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for the region, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, also took part.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels meanwhile vowed to help Mali by backing up an international military force and training Malian defence forces.
An EU summit statement said the situation “poses an immediate threat to the Sahel region as well as to West and North Africa and to Europe”.
“The EU will support Mali in its efforts to restore the rule of law and re-establish a fully sovereign democratic government with authority throughout Malian territory,” the statement said.
The 27-nation bloc “will examine support for the envisaged military force” and “speed up planning of a possible Common Security and Defence Policy military operation to help reorganise and train the Malian defence forces”.
The United Nations and the African Union said they would open permanent offices in Bamako to coordinate their respective actions in north Mali.
Representatives from ECOWAS countries, which are the only ones expected to send troops into Mali, will begin laying out their strategy for recapturing the area, according to Western diplomats.