PARIS - The leader of West Africa's regional bloc said in an interview published Sunday that military intervention in Mali is "inevitable" within weeks, if there's no quick change in the nation where Islamist extremists rule the north.
Alassane Ouattara, who also is the president of Ivory Coast, told the French weekly Le Journal du Dimanche that half the intervention force would be made up of Malien soldiers and would likely include soldiers from Niger, Nigeria and perhaps countries such as Chad — with logistical help from France and the United States. He defined logistical help as material support and counsellors but added that combat aircraft are needed.
"If the situation doesn't evolve favourably and rapidly, yes, there will be a military intervention in Mali," he said. "It seems inevitable." He added, "I think we can talk in weeks, not in months. There is urgency."
Ouattara serves as the head of the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS, which secured Mali's consent for an intervention at a meeting last week in Ivory Coast of West African military chiefs of staff to discuss intervention. There is agreement on a force of nearly 3,300, with an initial deployment of police and gendarmes followed by soldiers, he said.
Ethnic Tuareg rebels took control of Mali's vast north after a coup in March, but the Tuaregs have since been driven out by Islamist rebels who want to impose a strict version of Islamic law. An estimated 300,000 people have fled the region as al-Qaida linked groups impose their rule.
The proposal for the intervention force would need approval from the U.N. Security Council, which France leads starting Wednesday. Ouattara just ended a visit to Paris and a meeting with President Francois Hollande, and suggested in the interview that the French presidency would facilitate passage of a resolution.
France appears to be preparing the diplomatic groundwork for a possible intervention. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was completing a tour of capitals in the region from Niger to Chad.
In the United States, Michael Sheehan, the Defence Department's assistant secretary for special operations, said Thursday at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that "all options would be considered for what is a looming threat" and that discussions with France and Britain are under way. The United States has held special training missions in the past in Mali to counter the presence in nations of the Sahel of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an Algeria-born affiliate of the terror network.
The Ivory Coast leader said in the newspaper interview that he does not foresee the use of any non-African ground troops in a Mali intervention.
Mali moved toward turmoil with a coup in March led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo that ousted the democratically-elected government. An interim president, Dioncounda Traore, was appointed in April, but was attacked and injured by supporters of Sanogo. Traore returned only Friday to his homeland after medical care in Paris.
France, like other nations, hopes Traore's return will set the stage for formation of a national unity government, considered the top priority.
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