PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Friday everything had to be done to prevent a “terrorist or Islamic state” emerging in northern Mali after rebels seized vast tracts of the desert north.
A March 22 coup emboldened Tuareg nomads to seize the northern half of Mali and declare an independent state there. Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters are among the rebels, and analysts fear the desert zone could become a haven for al Qaeda agents and a destabilizing “rogue state” in West Africa.
Sarkozy said he supported some form of autonomy for the Tuaregs in the former French colony.
“We have to work with the Tuaregs to see how they can have a minimum of autonomy and we must do everything to prevent the establishment of a terrorist or Islamic state in the heart of the Sahel,” Sarkozy told i<Tele television.
France is Mali’s fourth-largest aid donor - a vital source of income in one of the world’s poorest countries. France also trains and equips government forces.
Mali’s former parliament speaker Dioncounda Traore took over as interim president on Thursday as part of a deal to restore civilian rule following the coup.
He called on the separatists to pull back from the northern towns they occupied, which include the desert trading post and seat of Islamic learning Timbuktu and the garrison town of Gao.
Traore has said he would wage war if the rebels did not pull back, and the 15-state ECOWAS grouping of West African countries, which pressured the coup leaders to give up power, is preparing an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops.
When asked if France could intervene militarily to remove the rebels, Sarkozy said it was first up to Mali’s neighbors, the African Union and ultimately the U.N. Security Council to make those decisions.
“I don’t think it’s up to France to do it,” he said. “France is ready to help, but we cannot be the leader of this (operation).”
France has said it is ready to provide logistical support to ECOWAS.
France has advised its 5,000 citizens living in Mali to leave. The escalating crisis also concerns Paris given that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is holding six French hostages in the region.
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Rosalind Russell