By Rukmini Callimachi
November 12, 2012
West African leaders have agreed to send more than 3,000 troops to help Mali wrest back control of its northern half, which was seized by al-Qaeda-linked fighters more than six months ago.
The decision came late on Sunday at the end of an emergency summit in Nigeria’s capital of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), a statement on Nigerian television said.
"We have agreed that 3,300 troops will be sent from West Africa. In addition, around 5,000 Malian troops will also be involved. If there is no agreement in the talks, we will move in," said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the press.
They were joined by military experts from the United Nations (UN), Europe and the African Union (AU). Mali’s neighbour Algeria was a key participant. It has previously been against the military intervention.
AU commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has said the situation in northern Mali posed a regional threat. The plan needs final approval from the UN Security Council before it can be carried out.
Troops will come from Nigeria, Burkina Faso and the Republic of Niger, Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara, who is chairman of the 15-member Ecowas, said after the meeting. Other West African countries and two or three non-African nations may also send troops, he said.
The official said that the largest number of troops will come from Nigeria, which has agreed to send 600 to 700 soldiers. Niger is expected to contribute about 500. Air power, he said, will be provided by either France or the US. An official at the talks said after the meeting that the West African states were unanimous in their decision.
The military in Mali, which vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, led a coup in March that ousted president Amadou Toure and left a power vacuum in Bamako, Mali’s capital, that allowed ethnic Touareg rebels to take control of the north, aided by Islamist groups including Ansar ud-Din and al-Qaeda’s African branch.
In the more than six months since then, the Islamic extremists have imposed a strict form of sharia law. Music of all kinds has been banned, and people are not even allowed to have a ring tone on their phones, unless it is one based on Koranic recitations. Women have been flogged for failing to restrictively cover themselves. In all three of the major towns in the north, residents have been forced to watch thieves getting their hands hacked off.
The UN is expected to meet later this month to review the plan. Security analysts and diplomats say that even if the deployment of troops is approved by the UN it could take months to implement.
The official who spoke privately disagrees. "As soon as they say it’s OK, it won’t take 24 hours for us to go. If the UN says go, we will move in immediately. They (the troops from Ecowas) will be targeting the hardcore Islamists. Not the Malian nationals — but the foreigners."
In recent weeks, representatives of Ansar Dine, made up mostly of Malian fighters, have sent delegations to Burkina Faso and Algeria in a bid to negotiate a solution in order to avoid military intervention.