December 21, 2012 11:36 am

UN approves force to retake north Mali

The UN Security Council has approved the deployment of an African force to retake northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked insurgents.

The council also authorised the EU and individual countries to help equip and train Mali’s army, which is meant to work alongside the 3,300-strong international force. The proposed military operation is not expected to start before September 2013 to allow for proper planning and political progress in Mali.

The resolution was unanimously adopted after weeks of disagreement between France, the main proponent of urgent action in northern Mali, and the US, which is more sceptical of the chances of battlefield success and wants to see a legitimate government first in Bamako.

The French-drafted text stresses the need for a twin track military and political plan. Deployment of the intervention force, known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali, or AFISMA, was authorised for an initial one-year period to take “all necessary measures, in compliance with applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law”. Working alongside Mali’s armed forces, the goal is to retake northern Mali from “terrorist, extremist and armed groups”.

Tuareg separatists started the uprising in Mali’s desert region in January, with Islamist groups soon joining in. A coup in Bamako in March led to the army withdrawing from the north. A loose Islamist alliance, including Ansar Dine and more extreme groups such as Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, quickly pushed aside the Tuaregs, and took control over most of the north, raising fears it could become a terrorist haven. France believes the jihadist groups are not only a threat to its citizens in the region – at least seven French hostages are being held in the Sahel – but also at home.

The UN resolution did not specify how the international mission will be funded. Nor is it clear how the force will be composed. The west African regional block Ecowas has pledged to supply the 3,300 troops, with Nigeria taking the lead. But US military officials believe that the desert conditions in northern Mali will be more suited to armies from non-Ecowas countries, such as Chad and Mauritania.

There are also questions about how Mali’s army will work with an outside force. Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, who retains significant influence in Bamako and forced the prime minister to resign this month, is wary of allowing in foreign troops, fearing his power will be diminished.

The resolution stressed that more military planning was needed, and the security council asked Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, to report on the readiness of AFISMA troops before the start of any combat operations.

A political solution has not been ruled out. While the hardline jihadist groups are unlikely to be drawn into negotiations, Ansar Dine and Tuareg representatives are in talks with Mali’s government.

“Our goal would be to have a real political process which will allow the Malian army to go back to its barracks in the northern part of the country without fighting,’’ Gérard Araud, France’s UN ambassador, told reporters on Thursday. “That would be our preferred option.”

The UN resolution also highlighted the need for political reconciliation in Mali, and urged the interim government to restore constitutional order and hold elections as soon as possible.

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