West African leaders at an emergency summit have agreed on 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.
“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 the summit.
The troops would come primarily from ECOWAS, but possibly from countries outside the bloc as well, he said.
The summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja was aimed at setting out a blueprint for military force in Mali’s north that would be transferred to the UN Security Council via the African Union.
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 afterward.
“We have countries that are offering battalions, others companies,” he said.
ECOWAS countries he named were Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo.
From outside of ECOWAS, “Chad could also participate. We have had contacts with other countries – Mauritania, South Africa.”
The summit’s final communique stressed that dialogue remained “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,” it said.
An ECOWAS source had said earlier that regional military chiefs were proposing a total of 5,500 troops, with some 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 key due to its superior 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 would 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.