By John Irish
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mali's interim leaders are capable of commanding a regional effort to combat Islamist militants in the north of the country despite their own internal differences, a senior African Union official said on Tuesday, dismissing suggestions new elections were needed before any military intervention could take place.
AU Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told Reuters he hoped a joint U.N.-African Union envoy to the Sahel would be appointed on Wednesday during a meeting at the United Nations General Assembly to send a "strong symbolic" message of support.
The West African country descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country. Islamist groups, some allied with al Qaeda, then hijacked the rebellion in the north to impose strict Islamic law.
The conflict has exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the turbulent Sahel region - a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the rim of the Sahara - where drought has pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
Some regional and western powers have suggested an election should be held in Mali before the Islamist extremists in the north can be tackled, a move sure to be unpopular with Malians that would ensure no military operation is launched until well into next year.
"I think we are long past (that idea)," Lamamra said in an interview at the AU mission in New York. "We have institutions in Bamako - a president and prime minister - committed to the country. There is a need now for the international community to support them."
Bamako has requested a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter to mandate immediately an international force to help the Malian army reconquer the north.
Chapter 7 allows the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
While Mali's request is the next step in the process, the Security Council is unlikely to provide a mandate for West African body ECOWAS to intervene militarily until it outlines a more detailed strategy, including the number of troops and costs of the operation.
Lamamra, Algeria's former ambassador to the United Nations and Vienna, said those plans were still being finalized, but a core group of regional states and organizations would meet by mid-October to try to finalize political and military parameters for the mission.
"There will be an agreement on a strategic concept that can then be presented to those bodies that have the power to make decisions," he said.
Goodluck Jonathan, president of regional powerhouse Nigeria, warned on Tuesday that the Mali insurgency is "threatening the unity of the country (and) ... has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries and destabilize the entire region."
Jonathan told the U.N. General Assembly that "urgent assistance" was needed from the international community to return peace to Mali.
The U.N. meeting on Wednesday aims to put the Mali issue firmly on the international agenda, but other than former colonial ruler France, which believes the presence of al Qaeda in the region is a direct threat to its interests, other nations have shown less readiness to become involved.
"This meeting is a golden opportunity for the international community," Lamamra said. "Mali is to be considered the extreme manifestation of what could happen elsewhere in the Sahel, so we are being cautious. We don't want to take any action that is counter-productive."
ECOWAS has mapped out a three-phase operation to reclaim northern Mali, but quarrelling between Bamako and ECOWAS over the deployment of troops in the Mali capital and squabbling between the country's leaders has also held up the process.
Lamamra said he believed those differences had now been overcome.
"One has to be sensitive to the nationalistic feelings of the people in Mali, but as long as the perceived different views had to do with technicalities rather than political substance, I think they were surmountable," he said.
(Editing by Christopher Wilson)