BAMAKO Malian troops backed by foreign air power will lead the assault to recapture Timbuktu and other northern cities from al Qaeda-linked militants, under a battle plan now being considered, Malian army sources said.
West African bloc ECOWAS is expected to submit a version of the plan to the United Nations Security Council for approval, paving the way for war in Mali's vast desert amid fears the region could become a new terrorist training ground.
"International forces will not do the ground fighting, that role will belong to the Malian army," a military officer familiar with the plan, who asked not to be named, said on Friday.
"Air strikes will be the responsibility of the international force," he said, adding foreign partners would also provide logistical and intelligence support and soldiers and police to secure areas captured by the Malian army.
Military planners from Africa, the United Nations and Europe in Mali's capital Bamako last week drew up a battle plan that would involve a foreign force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries. It remains unclear how much of the force would come from Western nations.
The plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali's south, followed by combat operations in the north.
A second Malian military source said the army expected Islamist rebels to try to avoid conventional fighting by slipping away into remote mountains or blending in with local populations.
"That is the main problem, and it will fall to our intelligence services to solve it," he said.
Once viewed as an example of progress towards democracy in Africa, Mali fell into chaos after a coup in March that toppled the president and left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by rebels to take over the north.
The Security Council gave African leaders 45 days from October 12 to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake the north, but diplomats say any such operation is months away.
Foreign powers are divided on the pace of an intervention. Regional powerhouse Algeria says it prefers a negotiated solution, while former colonial master France - which has several citizens held hostage by al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahara - wants a swift war.
Delegates from Islamist group Ansar Dine are holding talks with regional mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso, and members of the Tuareg rebel movement MNLA have sought to join efforts to solve the crisis.
Another Islamist group in the zone, MUJWA, told Reuters this week that a foreign intervention in Mali's north would lead to an Iraq-style quagmire.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Thursday that a military intervention in northern Mali would have a high humanitarian cost.
Access for aid workers is already precarious in the north, where 500,000 people - half the remaining population - depend on foreign aid, ICRC President Peter Maurer said.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; editing by Andrew Roche)