ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast (AP) — The president of the West African bloc of nations said Monday it "can no longer hesitate" to combat terrorism and criminality in northern Mali, which was overrun by Islamists.
Earlier this month, Mali's interim government requested military intervention, including aerial support and five battalions but leaders of a March coup, who retain considerable influence in Mali's capital Bamako, have previously opposed foreign intervention.
In his remarks, Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, president of the Economic Community of West African States, said it is important for political and military authorities in Mali to speak "with one voice" on the proposed intervention.
Foreign and defense ministers opened a meeting in Abidjan on Monday to discuss details of the deployment, which has yet to be approved by the United Nations Security Council. Malian military and civilian authorities on Sept. 1 requested assistance from ECOWAS, the African Union and the U.N. in recovering the territory in the north.
Speaking on behalf of ECOWAS at the Security Council in New York, Ivory Coast's U.N. Ambassador Youssoufou Bamba said the Mali request was welcome but fell short of the regional bloc's anticipated role. That's because it ruled out an ECOWAS military presence in the first two phases of the planned deployment — assisting to secure institutions in Bamako during the transition and helping to reorganize and train the Malian forces, he said.
"The request limited assistance to only the provision of equipment, logistics and intelligence in these phases, and allows for the deployment of troops only in Phase 3, the re-conquest of the territorial integrity of Mali," Bamba said.
He told the Security Council that the request for military deployment in the last phase would be extremely difficult and strategically unwise without a coordinating center in Bamako.
Bamba said Monday's ministerial meeting supported the concept of operations agreed to by chiefs of the defense staff on Sept. 14-15 that calls for Mali to accept a minimum deployment of ECOWAS troops and police to secure logistic facilities and military and police staff from the new ECOWAS standby force to be deployed in Bamako. It says retaking the north will be jointly planned by the ECOWAS force headquarters and Malian defense and security forces.
"This phase requires a lot of combat assets, including fighter jets for the conduct of the operations," the defense chiefs said.
Bamba said the ECOWAS decisions continue to encounter "fierce resistance" from some extreme elements in Mali. "The question of leadership in Mali remains unclear and this is sending confused signals," he added.
Meanwhile, Bamba said, rebel and terrorist groups in the north of Mali have taken advantage of the near political paralysis in Bamako to consolidate their positions. He said the security and humanitarian situation in the north of Mali is getting worse and continues to pose a major threat to regional and international peace and security.
Germany's U.N. Ambassador Peter Wittig, the current Security Council president, said that at Monday's meeting members took note of the Malian request for assistance to ECOWAS and the U.N. and "underlined the need to exhaust all means of negotiation before considering other means."
He said Mali's proposal to ECOWAS and its response will be discussed at a later date.
In Geneva, U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said Monday that Islamists in northern Mali have committed serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes, including amputations, summary executions and the stoning to death of an unmarried couple.
She strongly condemned the "attacks on the civilian population, sexual violence, recruitment of child soldiers and forced displacement, as well as the destruction of Mali's world heritage sites."
A spokesman for one of the radical Islamist groups controlling northern Mali told The AP on Sunday that their fighters cut off a thief's hand in Timbuktu. It was at least the seventh amputation carried out by the rebel Islamists. It comes after last week's double amputation of five robbers in the northern city of Gao.
Associated Press Writers Edith M. Lederer and Ron De Pasquale contributed to this report from the United Nations