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Mali requests military help for occupied north

Mali's interim president has formally requested regional military assistance in the north of the country, according to a French diplomat. The move could pave the way for a UN Security Council resolution.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore formally asked for military help from the region's Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to regain control of Mali's disputed north.

France's special envoy to the Sahel region, Jean Felix-Paganon, told reporters in neighboring Burkina Faso that Mali's government had officially called for help.

"[Ivory Coast] President [Alassane] Ouattara informed us that President Traore had formally sent a request to ECOWAS for military assistance to stabilize the country and especially to reconquer the north," Felix-Paganon said in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou late on Tuesday, describing it as "an important development."

The French diplomat did not say when Traore had made the request.

Militiaman from the Ansar Dine Islamic group, who said they had come from Niger and Mauritania, ride on a vehicle at Kidal in northeastern Mali, in this June 16, 2012 file photo. (Retuers)

The desecration of shrines in Timbuktu garnered particular media attention

ECOWAS has had a force of around 3,300 troops on stand-by for months, ready to intervene in the conflict in northern Mali, where the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is primarily in control. The group is thought to have ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Twin uprisings

Islamists, along with Tuareg rebels seeking autonomy for a region in northern Mali they call Azawad, seized vast swathes of the country early in the year - making particularly large gains in the turmoil that followed a military coup in the capital Bamako on March 22. The MUJAO has since seized control from the Tuaregs in the majority of the region.

MUJAO said on Tuesday that it had captured the town of Douentza, bordering the government-controlled south, and was implementing Shariah law there.

ECOWAS was hoping to secure a UN Security Council mandate before sending troops into the region. In June, the Council asked the West African group to explain precisely what sort of mandate it wanted. Any Security Council request is likely to be filed via the African Union.

Typically considered one of the region's most stable democracies, Mali's democratic rule has been shaken by the northern rebellions and the military coup in March that ousted President Amadou Toumani Traore.

Though the leaders of the military coup had requested help combating the northern rebellion, claiming that was the reason they seized power, the interim government was initially reluctant to seek outside help. The regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu - representing around two-thirds of Mali's land mass – are no longer controlled by the government.

msh/sej (AFP, dpa, Reuters)