ADDIS ABABA The African Union (AU) lifted Mali's suspension from the bloc on Wednesday, saying an African plan to intervene militarily to help the country claw back territory from Islamist militants would be ready within weeks.
The pan-African body also laid out a political road map which foresees elections in the beleaguered West African country by April even as it is still grappling with the fallout from a coup in March this year.
Armed Islamist groups control the northern two-thirds of Mali and have stirred global outrage by meting out executions and desecrating ancient religious sites under their own strict interpretation of sharia law. The United Nations says they have systematically violated human rights, particularly of women.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly told state-owned television late on Wednesday that he was "happy and satisfied" with the lifting of the suspension.
He said it was the result of Mali's "respect of signed agreements and the creation of a government of national union conforming to the demands of the international community."
It was not immediately clear, however, whether Mali had agreed to the AU's poll deadline. The government in Bamako does not have a seat at the AU's Peace and Security Council (PSC), which is comprised of a rotating body of members.
Nor was it clearly stated whether the vote would come before or after any military intervention against rebels in the north of the country where Bamako now has no control.
"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," Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairwoman of the AU Commission, told ministers at the opening of Wednesday's PSC meeting.
"At the same time, we will leave the door of dialogue open to those Malian rebel groups willing to negotiate," she said.
When the meeting concluded, Ramtane Lamamra, the AU's peace and security commissioner, told reporters the council had voted to reinstate Mali.
The AU suspended Mali's membership days after mutinous soldiers staged a coup against then President Amadou Toumani Toure. In April, an interim president, Dioncounda Traore, was sworn in but there remain doubts about who really holds the reins of power even in the government-controlled south of Mali.
MILITARY CAPACITY DOUBTS
Mali remains crippled by twin crises. The leadership in Bamako is still divided after the coup and the north of the country is occupied by Islamic militants.
The proposed path to elections was part of a "strategic concept" endorsed by the council that outlined measures including defense and security reforms to help end the turmoil in Mali.
"The road map provides for elections to be held 12 months after the return to constitutional order, meaning April," Lamamra told Reuters after the meeting.
Before then, Lamamra said, Mali's authorities would have to come up with their own plan for holding elections.
The document said Mali's return to the AU fold would help establish an inclusive political authority.
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.
Foreign envoys have voiced concern that the AU's request for U.N. backing in June lacked the necessary details, while others have spoken of serious reservations about the ability of the ECOWAS regional grouping to tackle the northern Islamists anytime soon.
Some envoys predict it could be months before any military operation is put in motion.
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said on Tuesday Europe must help restore security in Mali and could lend support through military training to an African-led mission.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Michael Roddy and Andrew Osborn)