ADDIS ABABA African nations are giving priority to finding a peaceful political solution to the problem of divided Mali but are preparing for a military intervention as a last resort, the African Union's top peace and security official said on Friday.
AU heads of state meeting in Addis Ababa this weekend will discuss Mali, where a mix of al Qaeda-linked local and foreign jihadists are controlling the north of the largely desert Sahel state after hijacking a rebellion by secular Tuareg separatists earlier this year.
AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told reporters: "I think there is room for negotiations and room for moving to reconcile Malians among themselves."
He said teams from the AU and West African regional grouping ECOWAS were working to prepare for military intervention but it would be "a last resort".
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Thursday said a military operation by African nations with Western backing in Mali was likely "at one moment or another".
Islamist fighters in northern Mali have tightened their control over the main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and their regions after forcing out the secular Tuareg separatist group MNLA that had spearheaded the rebellion.
The U.N. Security Council on July 5 endorsed West African efforts to end unrest in Mali but stopped short of backing military intervention until the details were given.
Lamamra said talks were underway to try to form a representative, inclusive government in the southern Malian capital Bamako to restore stability after the March coup that triggered the northern rebellion and division of the country.
African governments were pursuing dialogue too with some of the northern rebels to try to restore Mali's territorial integrity.
"Hopefully you will not have to resort to the military option if the political solution helps to achieve our goal which is the preservation of national unity," Lamamra said.
"NO TALKS WITH TERRORISTS"
But Lamamra said "terrorist organizations" like al Qaeda and its North African franchise AQIM would not be part of any talks. Witnesses have reported seeing AQIM fighters with the rebels in northern Mali.
"No one is negotiating with AQIM," Lamamra said.
He urged Malians "to realize that getting involved with terrorist organizations is not the answer to their own claims and aspirations and that they would do better, as they have done in the past, to resort to negotiations and dialogue".
Lamamra said "terrorism" in northern Mali would be dealt with through international cooperation involving the AU and global partners, but he did not offer specifics.
"We need African solutions to African problems," he said, adding he hoped African leaders at the Addis summit could agree on a concrete proposal for resolving Mali's crisis that they could then present to the wider world.
West African leaders are struggling to get Mali's politicians to form a national unity government that would then request U.N. backing for troops from the ECOWAS regional bloc in order to help in the fight against groups occupying the north.
"When Africa is united, when Africa develops consensual positions, the rest of the international community supports us," Lamamra said. "There is a lot of space for African solutions".
Fabius said Paris would not lead a military intervention in Mali since its colonial past in the country would complicate matters, but it could assist African countries taking part.
There is no accurate toll for how many have been killed in fighting so far this year in northern Mali, but over 300,000 people have been forced from their homes with concerns growing of a humanitarian crisis in the region.
(Reporting By Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Janet Lawrence)