West African nations on Sunday agreed to send some 3,000 troops to help the country of Mali wrest back control of its northern half, which was seized by al-Qaeda linked fighters more than six months ago, according to an official involved in the discussions and a statement read on Nigerian state television.
The decision came late on Sunday at the end of an emergency summit in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, of the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS. They were joined by military experts from the UN and Europe, as well as ministers from Algeria — Mali’s neighbor to the north, which has previously been against the military intervention. The plan needs final approval from the UN Security Council before it can be carried out.
An official involved in the negotiations said by telephone shortly after the meeting that the nations in West Africa are now unanimous in their decision to go forward with the military operation. He said that they will attempt one more round of negotiations with representatives of the Islamists controlling northern Mali, before moving ahead with the intervention.
“We have agreed that 3,300 troops will be sent from West Africa. In addition, around 5,000 Malian troops will also be involved. If there is no agreement in the talks, we will move in,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
The official said that the largest number of troops will come from Nigeria, which has agreed to send between 600 and 700 soldiers. Niger is expected to contribute around 500. Remaining troops will come from the other 13 nations in the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc. Air power, he said, will be provided by either France or the US.
Both France and the US have said that they will provide technical and logistical support to the intervention, provided that it is first approved by the UN.
Mutinous soldiers overthrew Mali’s democratically elected president in March, creating a power vacuum that paved the way for Islamists to grab the north, an area the size of France. In the more than six months since then, the Islamic extremists have imposed a strict form of Shariah law. Music of all kinds has been banned and people are not even allowed to have a ring tone on their phones, unless it is one based on Quranic recitations.
Women have been flogged for failing to cover themselves and in all three of the major towns in the north, residents have been forced to watch thieves having their hands hacked off.
The UN is expected to meet later this month to review the military plan. Security analysts and diplomats say that even if the deployment of troops to northern Mali is approved by the UN it could take months to implement.