BRUSSELS/BAMAKO: International officials said Tuesday they are discussing the possibility of using a United Nations force to provide long-term security in the troubled African country of Mali to enable a political transition to take place.
Any such decision would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. The current African-led support mission to Mali might be transformed into a U.N. force, said Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, president of the commission of the Economic Community of West African States, otherwise known as ECOWAS.
“We must note that the problem we are facing in Mali, as we’ve said on a number of occasions, is not just a question of national or regional security,” Ouedraogo said. “It’s a question of international security.”
In Mali, French and Malian troops are reclaiming vast areas of the north of the country from jihadists and other rebel groups. Troops from France and Chad moved into the strategic northern city of Kidal Tuesday, a French official said, in an attempt to push the extremists out of their last major bastion of control in the north.
Officials in other countries have feared that, if allowed uncontested control of the north, jihadists and drug traffickers could develop global plots.
Ouedraogo praised the African-led forces and said ECOWAS looks forward to “the liberation of that region” and the restoration of Mali’s territorial integrity.
“But then for a longer period we need to ensure that peace and stability are guaranteed in that region,” he said. “And that means a lot of work. It means very considerable resources. And that is why it is the desire of the African Union countries and the ECOWAS countries that the United Nations is involved in the follow-up to this.”
The comments came after a meeting in Brussels of international officials about the best ways to support Mali. The meeting, which was chaired by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, included representatives of the U.N., the African Union, ECOWAS, the World Bank and dozens of countries.
The participants said they were heartened by the broad participation – and by the unity of purpose displayed.
They also said that they supported the program put forth by the Malian government for a return to constitutional democracy.
International officials have also been eager to see a national dialogue established between the government in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and groups in the north that are willing to respect Mali’s territorial integrity, as well as to have allegations of human rights abuses by Malian soldiers investigated.
France has urged Mali’s government to begin talks with northern communities that include the pro-autonomy Tuaregs.
Malian interim Dioncounda Traore says he is ready to talk to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) provided they drop any claim for territorial independence.
But at a news conference following the Brussels meeting, the Malian foreign minister, Tieman Hubert Coulibaly, seemed angered by questions on these topics. He appeared to say there were no legitimate opposition groups in the north, only terrorists and criminals.
And while he acknowledged the Malian president had taken a clear stand against retaliation by his government’s soldiers, Coulibaly spoke not of those allegations but of 130 Malian soldiers whom he said surrendered, then were emasculated, had their throats cut and were shot in the back of the head.
“This war has been imposed upon us,” he said.
Malian military officials have accused the MNLA of seeking to exaggerate its footprint in northern Mali to strengthen its hand in possible talks with Bamako after the French-led offensive drove the Islamist fighters into the far northeast. The Tuareg former rebels say they are working with French forces fighting Islamists.
Tuareg rebels in Mali said Tuesday they had occupied the northeastern town of Menaka, seeking to extend their presence as they push for talks.
It was not possible to independently verify whether the MNLA’s fighters had entered Menaka, some 250 km southeast of their stronghold of Kidal. Menaka was the cradle of their uprising last year that seized northern Mali but was subsequently hijacked by Al-Qaeda and its allies.