10/19/2012 15:14 GMT
BAMAKO, Oct 19, 2012 (AFP) - Mali's President Dioncounda Traore said Friday not a second should be lost to recapture the desert north of his country from armed Islamists, as African and European leaders met to work on the logistics of such a move.
"We must not lose a single second. This is an emergency, this is a race against time," said Traore in a speech to the foreign officials.
The summit comes a week after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving West African nations 45 days to lay out details for military intervention.
The vast region the size of France fell under control of radical Islamist groups in the chaos that followed a March coup in the country that was once considered one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Concerned that the area could become the same type of haven for Al-Qaeda Islamists that Afghanistan was a decade ago, Mali's neighbours and the West are keen to drive the radicals out.
In the months that they have been in control of the region, the Islamists have imposed their version of sharia law, arresting unveiled women, stoning to death unmarried couples and amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, according to residents and rights groups.
They have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classed as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
The Malian leader thanked the international community, and notably the African Union, the United Nations and former colonial master France, for their support since the start of the crisis.
"Thanks to your support and solidarity our country, Mali, has never felt alone," he said.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has said that it could send up to 3,000 troops to recapture the area.
Among those attending Friday's summit were new African Union chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.
The number-two EU diplomat Pierre Vimont, France's envoy to the Sahel Jean Felix-Paganon, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy for the region, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, also took part.
European Union leaders meeting in Brussels meanwhile vowed to help Mali by backing up an international military force and training Malian defence forces.
An EU summit statement said the situation "poses an immediate threat to the Sahel region as well as to West and North Africa and to Europe".
"The EU will support Mali in its efforts to restore the rule of law and re-establish a fully sovereign democratic government with authority throughout Malian territory," the statement said.
The 27-nation bloc "will examine support for the envisaged military force" and "speed up planning of a possible Common Security and Defence Policy military operation to help reorganise and train the Malian defence forces".
The EU would also resume development cooperation as soon as Mali's coup leaders provided evidence of moves to restore constitutional order.
"In the meantime the EU will step up its humanitarian response," the statement added.
The United Nations and the African Union said they would open permanent offices in Bamako to coordinate their respective actions in north Mali.
Representatives from ECOWAS countries, which are the only ones expected to send troops into Mali, will begin laying out their strategy for recapturing the area, according to Western diplomats.
They will set out their military needs and take note of what ammunition and ground troops Mali has available.
"It has to be very well thought-out, otherwise the Security Council won't be on board if it deems the plan to be flawed," said one diplomatic source.
Underlining the importance of Friday's meeting, Malian presidential advisor Moussa Diakite told AFP "it will be for us Malians, and for our partners from the international community an opportunity to agree upon a plan to kick out the terrorists".
France's Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has in the past called the Islamist-occupied north "a terrorist sanctuary", warned the international community was serious about driving out the radicals.
France has pledged logistical support to the Mali military intervention.
On Thursday, Guinea said it was ready to deliver to Mali weapons purchased by the regime of president Amadou Toumani Toure before he was overthrown in March.
ECOWAS has blocked delivery since late July and Guinea said it wanted to make sure the weapons fell into the right hands in Mali.
Friday's meeting will also discuss the possibility of negotiation with some of the armed groups controlling the north.
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