BAMAKO/DAKAR Regional leaders and international organizations met in Mali's capital Bamako on Friday to seek a response to the occupation of the north of the country by al Qaeda-linked Islamists, but failed to resolve differences on how to tackle the growing security threat.
Mali remains paralyzed by twin crises, with the leadership in Bamako still divided since a March coup that toppled the president and the rebel takeover of the north of the country.
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 main challenge today is how to deal with the dangerous situation in the north of the country expeditiously," the African Union's new chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma told the meeting.
"This is a threat we cannot afford to take lightly, and...the danger it poses extends far beyond the African continent. The sooner we deal with it, the better."
In a document adopted during the talks involving Mali's west and north African neighbors, the African Union, the United Nations and the European Union, delegates called for sanctions against terrorist networks and Malian rebels who refuse to break ties to them and join talks.
The African Union and United Nations also announced plans to open permanent offices in Bamako.
But scant measurable headway was made towards harmonizing the positions of those calling for military action and others who prefer to give talks a chance.
With six hostages held by the Islamists and fearful of an attack on home soil, former colonial power France is eager for military action. Some West African leaders who worry that Mali's conflict will spill over into their own largely fragile states also favor military action.
The United Nations Security Council last week gave African leaders 45 days to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake control of the north.
However diplomats say any such intervention is months away and there is still no agreement over whether an election should be held to replace Mali's caretaker government before a military operation takes place.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly repeated the position of interim President Dioncounda Traore on Friday.
"We are not willing to organize elections while the north of the country is occupied," he said. "We were very clear with our partners."
While it has not ruled out military force, calls for a dialogue-first approach have been led by Algeria, the region's top military power, which fought a long war against Islamists in the 1990s.
Other neighbors such as Guinea argue that no time can be wasted in mediation efforts.
"How are we supposed to negotiate with terrorists?" Guinean President Alpha Conde said on state television on Wednesday. "We have no solution but to use force."
The United States, which spent years working with Mali's army against al Qaeda's Sahara wing, has called for a more cautious approach, seeking elections to strengthen the political leadership in Bamako first, with a possible military intervention later if needed.
There is no consensus within Mali itself on what should happen next.
Marches by hundreds of people in recent weeks on the streets of Bamako have highlighted splits in Malian public opinion, with some calling for swift foreign military intervention with others vehemently against it.
(Additional reporting by Saliou Samb in Conakry and John Irish in Paris; Writing by David Lewis and Joe Bavier; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Andrew Osborn and David Brunnstrom)