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Cape Town — The top United States diplomat for Africa has acknowledged that military action will be needed to break the control of northern Mali by Islamic extremists and re-unite the country, but says this needs to follow the restoration of democracy.
Johnnie Carson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, told journalists in a telephonic briefing on Monday: "It is absolutely, critically important for there to be democratic progress in Mali, that there be a restoration of the civilian, democratic, constitutional government, and that needs to be done as soon as possible."
Since a military coup in March, the central government in the capital, Bamako, has lost control of the north of the country, and West African states organised in the regional grouping, Ecowas, have been pressing the international community in recent weeks to back the formation of a regional military force to intervene.
However, Carson said domestic forces need to lead military action. Without 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 also stressed that Algeria and Mauritania, which are not members of Ecowas, but have long borders with Mali, as well as Chad, need to be included in talks on action.
He said: "There will have to be at some point military action to push AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and MUJWA (a related group) out of the north and out of the control that they are exercising over towns like Timbuktu, and Kidal and Gao. But any military action up there must... be well planned, well organized, well resourced and well thought through. And it must in fact be agreed upon by those who are going to be most affected by it. It is not something that should be taken lightly."
Carson was briefing African and Western journalists on discussions held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly's opening session last week.
He said the U.S. view was that the "enormously complicated situation" in Mali had four components, all of which needed to be dealt with simultaneously:
- The issue of governance: There had to be a return to "a civilian, elected, creditable government" after the overthrow of civilian rule in March.
- The "political marginalization" of the Tuareg people: This problem, which pre-dated Mali's independence, needed to be resolved, "and it must be resolved politically, not militarily." This too needed strong government in Bamako.
- The "very serious" question of the pursuit of terrorism by AQIM and the related MUJWA group: This would have to be dealt with "through security and military means".
- The humanitarian crisis brought about by the failure of rains and the displacement of people by military action.
Carson said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed to appoint a special envoy for Mali and the Sahel to co-ordinate international efforts to address the crisis. The U.S. hoped he would move swiftly to announce an envoy, and supported the establishment of a working group to integrate the efforts of the UN, the European Union, the U.S., Ecowas and Mali's other neighbours which were not part of Ecowas.
In an interview with AllAfrica last week in the midst of the deliberations at the United Nations, Senegalese President Macky Sall called for an urgent international response to the "worrisome" crisis in Mali.
"For the first time, an international jihadist movement has made a country bend to its will," he said. Drugs and arms trafficking threaten the entire region, and "if the world does nothing to reclaim Mali as a single united territory" the lawlessness will provide a haven for what he called "the international terrorist movement."
Sall said the west African community Ecowas cannot manage the crisis alone. The United Nations must take decisive action, he said, and must involve Mali's neighbors who are not Ecowas members - Mauritania, Algeria, and Chad.