Mali army says ECOWAS troops only welcome in North

BAMAKO Tue Aug 14, 2012 11:49pm EDT

Supporters of Mali's junta participate in a demonstration against regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) at the international airport of Bamako March 29, 2012. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

Supporters of Mali's junta participate in a demonstration against regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) at the international airport of Bamako March 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Luc Gnago

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali's military on Tuesday rejected the deployment of any foreign West African soldiers to the capital, saying any regional intervention could only take place in the North of the country, currently occupied by Islamist groups.

The comments, after talks between West African defense chiefs and Malian authorities, are likely to dismay regional leaders who have been seeking to shore up a weak civilian administration in Bamako before helping the local army take on a mix of gunmen including some from al Qaeda.

Mali faces a twin crisis after rebel fighters took advantage of the void following a March 22 coup to seize the North.

Although soldiers have since handed power back to civilians, they have been accused of continued political meddling and, concerned at the prospect of a terrorist safe haven in the desert North, African and Western leaders have made stabilizing the capital a priority.

"There is no question of soldiers from (West Africa's) ECOWAS bloc in Bamako but (they could send) some to the North. We could have 600-800 ECOWAS troops in support of ours," said Colonel Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele, chief of staff of Mali's army.

The figure is far less than the 3,000-strong mission ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, has said it is seeking a United Nations mandate for in Mali.

It was not immediately clear whether Mali's army would accept regional trainers to help revamp a force that lost control of the three northern regions in as many days after the coup.

Malian soldiers have complained that ECOWAS was swift in imposing sanctions after the coup but dragged its feet in coming to their assistance in the early days of the rebellion, which started in January.

Some have accused countries in the region of blocking at their ports arms shipments destined for the land-locked nation.

An attack on President Dioncounda Traore by a pro-coup mob in May highlighted tensions between civilians and military and led to calls for international forces to be dispatched to the capital to bolster confidence in the civilian administration.

However, Dahirou said Traore had said he was confident in the armed forces so no such deployment would be needed.

Salamatou Husseini Soulaimane, an ECOWAS commissioner for political and security issues, said it would be up to regional leaders to react to the Malian position.

While Malian political and military figures bicker over who is in charge during a proposed transition, a mix of Islamist forces, dominated by al Qaeda's regional wing, AQIM, have cemented their occupation of the North.

Although not yet threatened by a Malian or regional counter-attack, their efforts to impose strict Islamic law, sharia, has sparked pockets of resistance from the population accustomed to a more tolerant brand of Islam.

(Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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