TUNIS // An African-led force could deploy in Mali within weeks as a consensus emerges among regional states and the international community on the need for military intervention in the West African nation.
After Mali was destabilised by a coup in March, a loose alliance of Tuareg and Islamist groups took over the vast northern part of the country. Since then, Islamist groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aquim) have gained the upper hand and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law, while violence has persisted and refugees have flooded out of the area.
Military and political experts from the United Nations and the European Union began a four-day meeting in the Malian capital of Bamako yesterday, joined by representatives of the African Union, a shaky Malian national unity government and the Economic Union of West African states (Ecowas), which has proposed a draft plan for military operations to resolve the crisis.
The meeting will refine the plans, said Abdel Fatau Musah, the director of external relations at Ecowas, which aims to deploy at least the 3,200 troops the group has at its disposal with, he hoped, financial, logistical and technical support from the UN, EU and international partners.
"It is very, very important that we get the agreement of the neighbouring countries for peace in Mali and they have long-term experience in fighting terror cells," Mr Musah said.
Algeria, which shares a troubled border with Mali and, like Mali, has a difficult relationship with its ethnic Tuareg population, has shown signs of softening its anti-intervention stance, according to analysts.
A visit by the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to Algiers on Monday was seen as the latest in a series of signals that Algeria is prepared to back military operations in Mali.
A state department official said that most of the meeting focused on counter-terrorism and Mali.
"The Algerians are finally coming to terms with the fact that the situation is really very dangerous," said Anouar Boukhars, an assistant professor of international relations at McDaniel College in the US.
The coup against the president, Amadou Toumani Touré, earlier this year has caused extensive unrest in the country, with extremist groups including Aqim and Ansar Dine now in control of the north.
"In addition to the humanitarian situation, there are fears that these are zones that extremists could flourish in," said Mr Boukhars.
This has been the focus of attention of the international community, particularly France, many of whose citizens have been kidnapped in recent years by Islamist groups in the Sahel region, which appear to have grown stronger as ransom money has flowed in.
Some fear that as intervention is delayed, foreign fighters pouring into the northern region from African nations could present a more difficult adversary.
Oumar Ould Hamaha, of the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, told The Guardian newspaper earlier this week that "if an international or Malian force attacks us, we will take Bamako in 24 hours".
The growth of Islamist militancy in the north also appears to have been aided by the conflict and fragile rebuilding in Libya, a fear that was heightened when US state department officials said that Libyan militants placed a call to members of Aqim after the September 11 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.
The wartime failure of security on Libya's vast southern borders allowed the free movement of weapons, criminal and militant groups from all over the Sahel region of Africa into and out of the country, say Libyan border officials.
"These already fragile borders broke down and didn't leave any institutions," said Sadiq Mabrouk Al Obaidi, Libya's deputy defence minister in charge of borders. "Certainly, in North Africa, they already have a lot of problems, and the weapons made the situation deteriorate and these groups activate."
A UN Security Council resolution on October 12 stressed concerns about entrenchment of Aqim and other groups in the northern area and responded to a request from transitional authorities in Bamako for military assistance, by calling for the use of international military force in the country.
Mr Musah said that this would likely be submitted after November 4, following which he hoped for a UN mandate for intervention.
However, Mr Boukhars said that "a rushed intervention would be a disaster, you have got to stabilise Bamako first" but he added that military action did now seem inevitable. "It is not a question of if, it is when."