BAMAKO: Mali's embattled authorities have formally requested African military intervention to oust Islamic extremists from the country's north after months of toying with the option.
With a vast area of the country's north occupied by Islamic extremists who have enforced strict sharia law, army sources earlier told AFP they preferred to rely first on their own troops to chase out the jihadists.
Bamako has yet to confirm a request for west African forces to intervene in northern Mali, which was announced on Tuesday by France's special representative for the Sahel region Jean Felix-Paganon in Burkina Faso.
"President (Dioncounda) Traore formally sent a request to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to provide a military contribution to stabilise the country and especially reconquer the north," Felix-Paganon said.
"This is an important development and we are discussing the possible developments" with Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, ECOWAS's chief mediator, he added.
French International Radio (RFI) reported it was in possession of the letter from Traore requesting "reinforcement of anti-terrorist capacity through the sending of a detachment of police and equipment."
The letter also asks for "aerial support and the deployment of five battalions to the frontline to be gradually used to control the reconquered towns."
The formal request for the deployment of some 3,300 ECOWAS troops comes over four months after the regional bloc first declared its willingness to send a force to secure the interim government and combat rebels in the north.
Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara, who is the current holder of the ECOWAS rotating presidency, and interim Ghanaian leader John Dramani Mahama in a joint statement hailed the "evolution" of the political situation in Mali.
"They expressed their appreciation of the request by Malian authorities addressed to ECOWAS for the sending of a west African force to the north of Mali," read the statement issued after a meeting between the two leaders.
Iba Ndiaye, a leader of the United Front for the Defence of the Republic and Democracy (FDR) -- a coalition of 40 political parties -- praised the move but urged authorities to "act fast to free the north of the country."
However Nouhoum Keita from the opposition African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI) party said it was against the intervention and wanted "to liberate the north with our own armed forces".
ECOWAS offered the troops to Mali in late April, a month after the March 22 coup which took place in the midst of a Tuareg rebellion for independence in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The country was considered one of the region's stable democracies until the coup plunged it into turmoil.
The putsch only opened the way for the rebels to seize the region, but Islamic extremists allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who piggy-backed on their rebellion have since chased out the Tuareg and asserted firm control.
In the vast desert region, which is larger than France or Texas, they have imposed strict sharia law, whipping and stoning transgressors and destroying "idolatrous" ancient World Heritage sites in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Interim authorities have so far been unable to stem the crisis and on Saturday a jihadist group seized a position farther south, capturing the town of Douentza in the central Mopti region, on the frontier of the government-held zone.
Bamako has been hesitant to accept the offer of military intervention -- an action which has not been clearly defined and still awaits a mandate from the United Nations -- and insistent that its own army will take the lead.
"It will first be Malian troops who are present. No one will fight this war in the place of Mali, but others will come as support, especially in aviation and logistics," army chief Colonel-Major Ibrahima Dembele said on August 14.
ECOWAS and others have also attempted to negotiate with the Islamists, with no clear progress made.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Lalliot said in Paris Wednesday that the request was "an indispensable step to envisage international support", without giving details on any possible French contribution.