PARIS/OUAGADOUGOU Europe should get involved directly to help solve the worsening crisis in Mali and the Sahel once the U.N. Security Council endorses an African request to allow the use of force in the country, France's defense minister said on Monday.
The push for greater EU involvement came as Islamist group Ansar Dine, which appears to have the upper hand among rebel groups occupying northern Mali, confirmed it was in talks with mediators from West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
Mali, once regarded as a model of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum that enabled a mix of rebels from the north to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
The uprising involves separatists as well as domestic and foreign Islamist militants, and Western diplomats talk of the risk of the country turning into a "West African Afghanistan" due to the presence of fighters from al Qaeda and Nigerian militant group Boko Haram.
Former colonial ruler France has said it would be ready to help restore stability in Mali if there was a Security Council resolution. But Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pushed for a Europe-wide solution during talks with his Italian counterpart Giampaolo Di Paola on Monday in Paris.
"The best solution ... is that Europeans who feel directly concerned by the evolution of the Sahel crisis and that want an overall solution, and not specifically a military one, meet and discuss the possibility of common action for a specific mission," he told reporters after the meeting.
Diplomats said on Friday the Security Council was not ready to agree to an African Union request for intervention, and that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) first needed to show it had the troops, credible objectives and a sound strategy to conduct an operation.
West African military chiefs have secured troop commitments from three nations for a Mali intervention force, officials said after a meeting in Ivory Coast.
"With regard to military intervention, we want African (nations) to take the initiative, but once those decisions are taken it would make sense to have significant support and collaboration with Europe," Le Drian said.
Although the AU has sought a U.N. mandate for a potential Mali intervention force, they still favor talks with armed groups, so long as they distance themselves from "terrorist groups" operating in the zone.
"We are ready for this mediation. It will take time for everyone to understand each other," Algabas Ag Intallah, head of the six-man Ansar Dine delegation, told reporters after meeting Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso and ECOWAS mediator for the Mali crisis.
Compaore last week also hosted talks with the MNLA, separatist rebels who are also occupying Mali's north.
The two groups last month announced a merger to create an independent Islamic state in Mali's north but subsequently clashed. The MNLA has said it disagreed over the implementation of sharia, Islamic law, while Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghali told Reuters at the weekend that he was against independence.
An advance party of European military and civilian security advisors are already operating in northern Niger in a mission brought forward due to deepening fears over the threat of terrorism from neighboring Mali, Nigerian officials said on June 9.
No details were given by the European Union, but the EU has previously said it has ear-marked 150 million euros ($187 million) to improve security across the Sahel.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Vignal; Editing by David Lewis and Louise Ireland)