Western officials say a planned military push to reclaim northern Mali from armed rebel groups is unlikely to begin before next year – despite concerns about an escalating “terrorist” threat posed by the fighters there.
Proposals for an offensive by Mali’s forces, supported by troops from neighbouring nations and other African Union states – but not Western countries – are to be discussed at a meeting of African officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, on Wednesday.
An international plan is being finalised to help Mali’s weak interim government take on the groups, including armed Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels, that have become the de facto rulers of the country’s north following chaos prompted by a military coup in March.
However, diplomats expect that the preparations and moves to secure a UN Security Council resolution to authorise the action could take months.
Britain’s special representative to the Sahel, former aid minister Stephen O’Brien, said nations will take until December to work out what help to provide to the troubled West African country, which is likely to include training for the nation’s armed forces, help with military logistics and work on a plan to hold elections in 2013.
“That will all, around the turn of the year, start developing a very clear twin track approach – on both the political and the possible military side,” O’Brien said.
France, which plans to move surveillance drones to West Africa and is holding secret talks with US officials on Mali, has pressed for quicker action, as have some African nations.
Last month, French President Francois Hollande called for an African-led military intervention in Mali “as quickly as possible”.
Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from Bamako, said that France is warning that without intervention, Mali could see a similar fate to Afghanistan.
“France, like other European countries and like the US, is very interested in seeing this area rid of the armed groups,” he said.
O’Brien said there were growing concerns over the security risks posed by fighters sheltering in northern Mali.
“Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, which has activities in the area, is growing in both capability and ambition, and if we don’t act there is a very real threat of further attacks in Africa, and eventually Europe, the Middle East and beyond,” he said.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was also growing increasingly wary.
“If the north of Mali falls apart, if terrorist schools appear and a safe haven is created for terrorists worldwide, then it won’t just endanger Mali and the North African states, but it endangers us in Europe, too,” he said.
Asked by the AP news agency whether Germany would consider sending unmanned observation drones, like France, Westerwelle said: “It’s too soon to talk about further details.”
He said European foreign ministers will discuss options for supporting Mali at a meeting on November 19, but insisted that nations in Europe would not contribute troops or weapons, seeking instead to offer training and logistical assistance.