documentBy Phillip Kurata
Washington — Immense progress has taken place in Mali since January when an international force of French and African troops arrived to retake the northern part of the country from violent extremists, according to two U.S. diplomats working to resolve the crisis.
"The international military intervention has helped restore Mali's territorial integrity and undermined the capacity of terrorist and extremist groups to operate freely in the north of Mali," U.S. Ambassador to Mali Mary Beth Leonard said in a teleconference with reporters March 14.
She said that at the same time in Bamako, the capital, the Malian public and political groups have shown greater willingness to work together to organize new elections and promote national reconciliation.
In January, France sent troops to Mali to launch an international operation against violent extremists who had occupied the north. Troops from several members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as well as from Chad, a non- ECOWAS country, joined the operation. The French and African intervention was mandated by the United Nations.
The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and the permanent U.S. representative to ECOWAS, Terence McCulley, praised ECOWAS for showing "great leadership" in dealing with the Mali crisis. The crisis erupted in April 2012 when the military overthrew the elected government in Bamako, which, the military charged, had been ineffective in dealing with the insurgency in the north.
McCulley credited Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the sitting president of ECOWAS, and the president of the ECOWAS Commission, Kadre Desire Ouedraogo of Burkina Faso, for creating a rapid consensus among the ECOWAS countries on condemning the coup, demanding the restoration of legitimate government and calling for the deployment of force to ensure the territorial integrity of Mali.
"Throughout this process, the United States has been a strong supporter of ECOWAS," McCulley said. "We look forward to working closely with ECOWAS and the African Union to restore peace in Mali." He also praised Chad for its participation in the African force.
Ambassador Leonard said the United States is barred by U.S. law from providing direct support to the Malian government and military until a legitimate government is elected. But she added, "The United States continues to remain at Mali's side as this country deals with its multiple and intertwined challenges."
She said the United States has already committed $6.6 million to support elections to form a legitimate government, with the bulk of the money going to support electoral programming focusing on key issues such as voter education, technical assistance and training to the electoral management bodies, national reconciliation, and targeted election support .
"In regard to elections, we continue to urge Mali to hold free and fair elections in July 2013 or as soon as technically feasible. We believe a critical next step is the publication of a clear chronogram [document] that sets out a detailed timeline for political parties and the Malian public on how the elections will proceed," she said.
Leonard said the multifaceted Malian crisis can begin to be addressed only by an elected government.
"It is that elected government that is best empowered to craft the longer-term solutions to the crisis facing this country. It is also a critical step to assuring clear command and control over the military and an unquestioned return to civilian control over the military," she said.
The ambassador also appealed to Malian authorities to release a jailed journalist, Boukary Daou, editor of Le Républicain newspaper. "As Mali faces a complex set of challenges, there is a vital role for media. We urge the utmost protection in expression and rights under the law," Leonard said.