African leaders met in the capital of the troubled nation of Mali on Friday to prepare their plan for a military intervention to take back the nation's north, which was overrun by al-Qaida-linked rebels six months ago.
The high-level meeting comes after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution last week giving Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 45 days to help Mali develop a plan to recover the occupied territory. The United States, France and Britain have said they will offer logistical support, but the invasion needs to be led by African troops, and representatives from the nations bordering Mali were meeting to discuss the details.
The delegates drafted a document, outlining a strategy for the operation. It calls for the necessary arms and equipment to be provided to the Malian military by African Union member states, as well as by international partners. They also called for assistance in terms of expertise and help with training the Malian armed forces for the purpose of taking back the north.
A copy of the draft seen by The Associated Press provided few details about how the military operation would be carried out, or a timetable for the intervention. The document is being submitted to the African Union at their meeting in Addis Ababa on Oct. 24, and once adopted, it will be sent back to the U.N.
Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary-general told the meeting delegates that whatever military action they decide to take "should not exacerbate existing tensions or worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation."
"Any military action must also support a coherent political strategy for the country's reunification. And for the international community to back an international military force, human rights and humanitarian law must be scrupulously respected," Eliasson said, according to a statement issued by the U.N. news agency.
The meeting brings together representatives from the body for nations in West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States, as well as the chair of the African Union and envoys from the United Nations. On the sidelines of the meeting, African leaders pressed for a quick intervention, saying that too much time had already passed.
"This is a threat we cannot afford to take lightly, and the danger extends far beyond Africa," said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union. "The sooner we deal with it, the better."
Mali's Interim President Dioncounda Traore spoke of the growing abuses in the north, where the Islamist groups have imposed Shariah law, banning music, and forcing women to cover themselves. A couple accused of adultery was stoned to death and at least seven accused thieves have had their hands amputated.
The Islamists have also pulverized the UNESCO-listed World Heritage sites in the northern city of Timbuktu, arguing that the tombs of local saints amounted to idolatry.
"It's in Mali that we stone people to death. It's in Mali that we cut off people's hands. It's in Mali that we flog people in public. It's in Mali that we hit women. It's in Mali that we desecrate the tombs of the dead. This risks being a threat for the entire world," said Traore. "Help us help Mali so that it can once again become the solution and not a problem for its neighbors."
For decades up until this March, Mali was considered one of the only stable democracies in the region, a reputation it lost in a matter of hours when renegade soldiers led an impromptu coup on March 22.
In the chaos that followed, the military hierarchy was no longer respected, and the rebels in the country's north were able to push forward, seizing the three major provincial capitals. Initially they were led by a secular group that wanted to create an independent homeland for Mali's Tuaregs.
Their rebellion was hijacked by the Islamist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which became the de facto rulers of the north in June, after forcing the secular groups to beat a retreat.
The resolution adopted at the United Nations last week invokes Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which opens the door to military intervention and enforcement of the council's decisions. It also calls for help from the European Union to help train and assist the Malian army to retake the north.