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International talks to reclaim northern Mali

African and European leaders meet in Mali's capital Friday to draft a military plan to reclaim the nation's desert north from armed Islamists. In Timbuktu, extremists leveled more tombs of local Sufi saints on Thursday.

Representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) are expected at the talks in Mali's capital, Bamako, to outline their strategy for 3,000 West African troops who have been kept on standby.

Last week, the UN Security Council urged to speed up intervention plans for two-thirds of Mali, where the Islamists - including the group Ansar Dine - seized control after a March military coup had left a power vacuum.

Attending Friday's summit will be senior representatives of the African Union, including the AU's new commission chief, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The number two EU diplomat, Pierre Vimont, and the UN's special envoy for the region, former Italian premier Romano Prodi, will also attend the meeting.

Malian presidential advisor Moussa Diakite said it is up to the country and international partners to "agree on a plan to kick out the terrorists."

Guinea announced on Thursday that it is ready to deliver weapons purchased by the regime of Mali's ex-president, Amadou Toumani Toure, before he was overthrown in March. ECOWAS blocked that delivery in July.

More shrines 'flattened'

Residents of Timbuktu, Mali's renowned northern desert town listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, say heavily armed Islamists went to at least three ancient shrines on the outskirts Thursday and "flattened everything with a bulldozer."

The Islamists have said they are defending their faith against worship of idols. The Sufi sect is prevalent across northern Mali.

Dlamini-Zuma will represent the AU in Bamako

The AU's Dlamini-Zuma has a major task at the Bamako talks

Rights groups say that since March the Islamist rebels have imposed Shariah law by arresting unveiled women and amputating the limbs of suspected thieves.

Since the start of the conflict, at least 250,000 Malians have fled their homes, according to the United Nations.

In Germany, Rainer Arnold, defense spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats, has told the newspaper Rheinische Post that the international community can not sit idly by and watch northern Mali turn into a "fallback zone for terrorists."

The newspaper said Germany and France have reached agreement in principle on what to do in Mali. Their contribution would not involve the deployment of combat troops, but it would focus on training for Mali's army.

ipj/slk (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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