UN members appeared deeply divided on Wednesday as they sought to resolve the crisis in Mali, with France and some of Mali’s neighbors backing possible military intervention, while the US said the West African nation must first have an elected government.
A special UN session on Mali, held on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly, was intended to devise a plan for a nation that descended into chaos in March after a military coup toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled local Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country.
Islamist groups have since hijacked the rebellion in the north, imposing strict Islamic law in regions under their control and spurring fears that religious extremists could further destabilize the region.
Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, have carried out public whippings of alleged adulterers and destroyed UNESCO-listed shrines of local saints in the ancient town of Timbuktu, arguing such worship was un-Islamic.
“There is an urgency to act to end the suffering of the people of Mali and to prevent a similar situation that would be even more complicated in the Sahel and the rest of the world,” Malian Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra told the General Assembly.
France, Mali’s former colonial power, called on Wednesday for the UN Security Council to adopt as soon as possible a resolution enabling military intervention in northern Mali, a call that has been supported by some West African nations that fear Mali’s chaos will spread beyond its borders.
French President Francois Hollande warned that Mali’s territorial integrity should be restored as soon as possible and that any lost time would only complicate matters.
He said he wanted a resolution on Mali to be approved within weeks. France has ruled out intervening directly, but has promised logistical and intelligence support.
Hollande’s calls were echoed by some of Mali’s neighbors, including Niger, whose foreign minister, Mohammed Bazoum, told delegates that only an armed intervention supported by friendly powers could eradicate insecurity in the region.
However, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signaled caution, saying immediate efforts should concentrate on putting a legitimate government back in power in Mali before its internal divisions are addressed.
“This is not only a humanitarian crisis; it is a powder keg that the international community cannot afford to ignore,” Clinton said. “In the end, only a democratically elected government will have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of law.”
The fragile interim government that now holds Mali’s capital, Bamako, requested a Security Council resolution earlier this month, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — a West African regional body — has said it would be ready to send in troops.
However, diplomats say that the Security Council remains unlikely to provide a mandate for military intervention until ECOWAS outlines a more detailed strategy, including troop numbers and costs of the operation.
The Malian conflict has exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the turbulent Sahel region — a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world’s poorest countries on the rim of the Sahara — where drought has pushed millions to the brink of starvation.