BAMAKO Military experts from Africa, the United Nations and Europe have drafted plans to recapture northern Mali, officials said on Tuesday, as one faction of the Islamist rebels who occupy the territory called for talks.
A source with knowledge of the plan said the plan would involve a force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries.
"Every military option will be used - ground and air," the source said, asking not to be named.
The crisis in Mali has become a security concern for Western governments worried its vast desert could turn into a training ground for al Qaeda-linked militants.
Once an example of African democracy, Mali fell into chaos after a coup in March in the capital Bamako that toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum exploited by rebels for their takeover of the north.
International military experts drew up the plan at a week-long meeting in Bamako and submitted it on Tuesday to the West African regional bloc ECOWAS for approval.
The blueprint will be reviewed by the U.N. Security Council in mid-November, setting the stage for action.
"We need to respond in detail to the Security Council on the logistics, timing, size and funding for the deployment of this mission," Desire Ouedraogo, president of the ECOWAS Commission, told military planners at the meeting's closing ceremony.
"So your conclusions will be crucial in the next step, of getting the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution authorizing deployment."
The Security Council gave African leaders 45 days from October 12 to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake control of the north. Diplomats say that any such operation is months away, however.
The source present at the planning meetings said a military headquarters for the mission would be set up in Koulikoro, about 60 km (45 miles) from Bamako.
U.S.-based risk consultancy Stratfor said an intervention would likely drive al Qaeda-linked fighters out of their strongholds - Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal - and into the mountain ranges of Mali and Niger where their influence could be contained.
Former colonial power France has been a vocal backer of military action. The United States, which spent years working with the Malian army against al Qaeda's Sahara wing, has called for a more cautious approach, seeking elections first to strengthen the political leadership.
ISLAMISTS CALL FOR TALKS
While regional and international efforts to deal with the situation have been hobbled by division over how far to proceed with negotiations with the rebels, a consensus is building that a military intervention is inevitable.
Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups occupying northern Mali, told regional mediator Blaise Compaore it was ready to open talks with the government of Mali to end the conflict.
Ansar Dine has also sent delegates for talks with regional power Algeria in an apparent effort to head off an intervention.
"Ansar Dine reaffirms its availability to immediately engage in a political dialogue with the transition authorities in Mali, in order to reach a complete end to hostilities," the group said in a statement after meeting President Compaore in Burkina Faso.
It said they were also ready to "respect fundamental freedoms, the return of displaced persons and refugees and the creation of an environment conducive for the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive peace agreement that addresses all the root causes of the crisis in Mali"
Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said he hoped the Malian government would open direct contacts with the rebels, but added that the rebels would have to prove their good faith.
"The mediation took note and welcomed the statement from Ansar Dine. Beyond the declaration of intentions, we hope that this would be effectively translated to day-to-day actions and behavior on the ground," Bassole said after the meeting.
(Additional reporting by Mathieu Bonkoungou in Ouagadougou; Writing by Richard Valdmanis and Bate Felix; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)