WASHINGTON — The United States would support a "well planned" and "well resourced" African-led force to help oust Islamist rebels in northern Mali, provided its neighbors back the idea, a US official said Monday.
"Yes, I say there will have to be at some point military action to push" Islamist rebels out of northern Mali, the top US diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, told journalists on a conference call.
But any such force must take its lead from Mali's army and the nation's neighbors must agree to it being set up, he cautioned.
Last week, Mali, France and west African nations led calls at the United Nations for the creation of an African-led force to help Mali flush out rebels from its northern territory seized in a March coup.
The remote area is now under the control of several groups including Islamist rebels linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), out of northern Mali.
"Any ECOWAS military activities in northern Mali should in fact have the Malian military as the lead and ECOWAS fighting alongside of it," Carson said, as he briefed about a whirlwind of diplomacy around African issues at the UN General Assembly last week.
"But it is not just ECOWAS. It is important that what goes on up there, has the support of all of the states in the region.
"The ECOWAS states, as well as Mauritania, Algeria and others in the area must also be a part of this policy," he stressed, pointing to the long, porous borders that Mali shares with other nations.
He also argued that "any military action up there must indeed be well planned, well organized, well resourced and well thought through, and it must be agreed upon by those who are going to be most affected by it."
Military putschists seized power in the capital Bamako in March, ousting president Amadou Toumani Toure, only to see the north and east fall to Tuareg rebels and Islamist militias linked to Al-Qaeda.
Carson stressed the need for the swift restoration of a civilian democratic government to advance progress on the problems plaguing the west African nation, including the need to address the demands of the Tuareg people and the humanitarian crisis.
"If you don't have a strong credible government in Bamako it will be difficult to have a military which is capable of leading, as it should, the liberation in the northern part of the country," he added.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has 3,300 regional troops on standby to form a force, but is awaiting UN approval.
Islamist rebels are accused of imposing sharia law in northern Mali and carrying out brutal atrocities, particularly on women and children.
The crisis there is complicating efforts to help the vast desert Sahel region to the south, which stretches across nine African nations and where millions of people risk starvation due to failing harvests and the political instability.
Mali has formally requested that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution authorizing an ECOWAS-led force for its country, and the issue must now be debated by the 15-nation body.
The Sahel stretches across a swath of west Africa, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week work must urgently begin in the Security Council to consider the various proposals because the situation is "not only a humanitarian crisis, it is a powder keg that the international community cannot afford to ignore."
Pentagon spokesman George Little said there had been no request for the United States to provide military support to Mali, "but obviously we would consider it."
"We've been in discussion with the State Department and other agencies and departments about the counter-terrorism issues that emanate from Mali and from other countries in that region," Little said.
"We stand ready to assist in whatever ways are appropriate."
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