U.S. urges Mali to accept African force

BAMAKO Fri Jul 20, 2012 10:51am EDT

BAMAKO (Reuters) - The United States has called on Mali's authorities to accept offers by African states to send a military force to stabilize the country and help retake control of its vast northern desert, now in the hands of al Qaeda-linked Islamists.

West Africa's ECOWAS bloc has said for months it wants to send a 3,000-strong force to tackle instability but it has so far not received backing from the United Nations and met resistance from politicians and soldiers in Mali.

The U.N. Security Council has been reluctant to back military intervention without a clearer plan for the force. Meanwhile, regional criticism of Mali's army for a March coup has left soldiers there hesitant about the idea of foreign troops being dispatched.

"Mali should accept the force, whether they are soldiers, police or gendarmes, which have been generously offered by ECOWAS," Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said late on Thursday during a visit to Bamako.

"Mali should accept this offer as it has taken part in similar actions in other countries," he added, referring to the presence of Malian peacekeepers in missions elsewhere.

Mali, for a long time seen as a stable nation in an often turbulent West African region, imploded in the space of a few weeks earlier this year after the March coup hastened a rebel advance across the north.

A mix of local and foreign Islamists have outmaneuvered separatist Tuareg rebels and now control the three northern regions, imposing strict Islamic law and stoking fears that the zone has become a terrorist safe haven.

Attitudes towards a foreign intervention in Mali have been mixed.

Former colonial power France has said it is probable and neighbor Niger has called for swift action.

However, the U.N. Security Council has not endorsed the plan, the African Union says it favors dialogue and the International Crisis Group think tank warned against nations wading into a complex situation.

Progress towards tackling the north has also been delayed by the junta that seized power but officially stepped aside in April continuing to meddle in politics.

Carson called for the army to stay out of politics and stressed the need for Mali's political class to agree on a new consensus government by the end of the month, as called for by regional leaders.

Mali's soldiers has asked for arms and financing but has resisted the idea of ECOWAS, which imposed sanctions after the coup, sending its soldiers.

A joint ECOWAS, AU and U.N. team of experts has just completed a mission to try and improve relations and assess the status of Mali's army, which was out-gunned by rebels whose arsenal had been boosted by weapons from Libya.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Myra MacDonald)

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