Foreign affairs and defense ministers from West Africa met on Friday to discuss plans for an intervention force to drive radical Islamists out of northern Mali.
The ministerial meeting, being held under the auspices of the ECOWAS Mediation and Security Council (MSC), is one in a series of consultations on the deployment of troops to northern Mali.
Preparations are accelerating for an intervention force in Islamist-occupied northern Mali as West African leaders prepare to adopt a military blueprint in Abuja on Sunday before it heads to the UN for approval.
The Security Council is expected to adopt a resolution giving the green light for the deployment of troops once it has studied the intervention plan.
Kayla Branson is an intelligence analyst with the Risk Advisory group in London. She told DW's Africalink program that "the overall lack of discipline and resources of the Malian army was a major concern," hence the need for support from the international community.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the north with the help of militant Islamist allies.
The secular Tuareg separatists were quickly sidelined by militant Islamist groups, such as Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing their version of strict sharia law.
Ansar Dine extends olive branch
With the ECOWAS military intervention looming, Ansar Dine has sent envoys to Ouagadougou and Algiers for negotiations and called for all armed movements to halt hostilities and join in dialogue, while rejecting “all forms of terrorism”.
However, Ansar Dine has ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has long been established in northern Mali. There are fears in the region and in the West that the Sahel could become a haven for Islamist radicals.
Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have cracked down on local populations, stoning unmarried couples, amputating thieves' hands and whipping drinkers and smokers.
Although Ansar Dine has imposed strict Islamic law, authorities believe the group is the one that is most open to negotiation, because its fighters have ties to the area.
The violence in Mali has displaced about 200,000 people inside the country, while as many again have fled to neighbouring states, according to the UN and the ICRC.
ICRC raises concerns
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer, has warned that a military intervention in northern Mali against Islamist militants will have a high humanitarian cost, since access for aid workers in the north, where 500,000 people depend on foreign aid, is already precarious.
Maurer urged foreign leaders to bear the humanitarian cost in mind as they plan for military action.
Aid agencies warn a military intervention would have a high cost in humanitarian terms
"There is a lot of talk how to 'liberate' the north, how to re-conquer the north, but there is little consideration of what the humanitarian impact of whatever scenario would be," Maurer told a news briefing.
He said that he had discussed the issue during visits to Mali, Niger and at a closed-door session of the African Union's peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa in October.