UNITED NATIONS — UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday called on the Security Council to impose sanctions against Mali extremist groups accused of terrorism and desecrating Muslim religious shrines.
He made the call at a Security Council meeting at which a West African envoy said militant groups who control the north of Mali want to set up a safe haven for "continental terrorist networks."
Ban said the 15-nation council should "give serious consideration to the imposition of targeted travel and financial sanctions against individuals or groups in Mali engaged in terrorist, religious extremist or criminal activities."
He called the destruction of nine of the 16 shrines in Timbuktu a "callous" act by the Islamist Ansar Dine group, which controls northern Mali with Al-Qaeda linked fighters.
A March 22 military coup in the West African country set off a chain of chaotic events which led to Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine taking over the north of Mali.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has proposed sending an intervention force to Mali to help the transitional government. It has asked for UN backing.
Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole, acting as an ECOWAS mediator, met with leaders of Ansar Dine in Mali on Tuesday "and requested that they cut ties to terrorist movements before any peace talk could begin," Ban told the meeting.
He added that "no meaningful dialogue has commenced between the government of Mali and any of the groups in the north."
An ECOWAS envoy said northern Mali could become a safe haven for terrorist groups unless there was international action.
"The objective of the terrorist groups and transnational organized criminals is clear: It is to create a safe haven and a coordinating center in the north of Mali for continental terrorist networks," Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, told the meeting.
Suleiman named Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Boko Haram, which has staged multiple attacks in Nigeria, and Shebab, which has sought to control Somalia, among groups seeking a base in northern Mali.
"If that objective is realized no country in Africa or outside the continent will be safe," Suleiman warned the Security Council.
"We are running out of time in Mali. Every day that we dither and postpone concrete action offers the terrorists and criminal networks yet another opportunity to consolidate, another opportunity to commit atrocious war crimes," she said, renewing calls for UN backing for an intervention force.
The Security Council has said it is ready to approve an African force in Mali but first the Mali government must say it wants the force. ECOWAS and the African Union also has to give more information on the size, means and mandate of its proposed force.
Suleiman said that the West African regional group would finalize its plans in coming days. ECOWAS, AU, UN, European Union and Mali government officials are to meet in the Mali capital, Bamako, from August 9 to 13, she said.
European countries and the United States are increasingly worried about the growing strength of the Islamist groups in northern Mali, diplomats said.
France's UN envoy Gerard Araud said Tuesday that there will be a "long crisis" in Mali and predicted that military action would be needed for the government in Bamako to recover its lost territory.
Araud said Mali's government and army had to be rebuilt before any intervention by the Mali army and African forces. "There will be a military intervention because you do not negotiate with Al-Qaeda. You have to fight these people," he said.
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