ADDIS ABABA An African plan for military intervention in Mali to help government troops reclaim territory from Islamist militants will be ready within weeks, the head of the African Union (AU) said on Wednesday.
Mali remains paralyzed by twin crises, with the leadership in Bamako still divided since a March coup that toppled the president and the occupation of the north of the country by Islamic militants.
Regional and international efforts to deal with the situation, which has created a safe haven for Islamists and international criminal gangs, have been hampered by divisions over how to help.
The AU asked the Security Council in June to back military intervention. The council asked for a detailed operation plan within a deadline of a little over six weeks from October 12.
"The Security Council has asked us to produce a plan within 45 days - that will be done within 45 days," Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairwoman of the AU Commission, told Reuters in an interview after ministers opened a meeting of the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Western diplomats had expressed concern that the AU's request for U.N. backing in June had lacked the necessary details, while others have voiced serious reservations about the ability of ECOWAS to tackle the northern Islamists anytime soon.
Some envoys predict that it could be months before any kind of plan is put in motion and troops are trained and in place.
"One plan is ready, and the other one will be ready because work has already started," Dlamini-Zuma said.
She was referring to a "strategic concept" expected to be endorsed by the PSC on Wednesday.
The strategy outlines measures including elections, establishing an inclusive political process and governance, and defense and security reform.
The draft plan calls for the AU and partners to devise a timeline for elections to be held next year.
"UNITY OF PURPOSE"
In July, the AU said it hoped military intervention in Mali would be a last resort. But on Wednesday Dlamini-Zuma spoke of an "early" military operation that could run alongside negotiations.
"We are working ... to finalize the joint planning for the early deployment of an African-led international military force to help Mali recover the occupied territories in the North," she told the opening of the PSC meeting:
"At the same time, we will leave the door of dialogue open to those Malian rebel groups willing to negotiate," she said.
There is also division among some West African states and western powers over how to tackle the Malian crisis.
While it has not ruled out military force, Algeria, the region's top military power that fought a long war against Islamists in the 1990s, has led calls for a dialogue-first approach.
Other neighbors such as Guinea argue no time can be wasted in mediation efforts.
The United States, which spent years working with Mali's army against al Qaeda's Sahara wing, has pushed for a more cautious approach. It earlier had called for elections to strengthen the political leadership in Bamako, with a military intervention later if needed.
While urging military intervention, France also has called for consensus and coordination.
Dlamini-Zuma, however, said the crisis should be tackled as soon as possible.
"I think around Mali, there's unity of purpose, there's unity of ideas. So I think so far, so good," she said.
"Once we have taken the documents to the U.N., the ball will be in the U.N.'s court."
Armed groups have been told to distance themselves from "terrorist" and criminal groups before they can participate in talks.
Dlamini-Zuma told the PSC the door for dialogue was still open for rebels, but warned "negotiations cannot be open-ended."
(Editing by Richard Lough and Michael Roddy)