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West African bloc pushes for unity government in Mali

West Africa's political bloc has called for a unity government to halt Mali's slide toward partition. Regional leaders have expressed concern the Islamist north threatens the stability of neighboring countries.

West African leaders held a regional summit on Saturday to discuss the political crisis in Mali, in an effort to put a unity government in place and take action against an Islamist separatist movement in the north.

The members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) convened their summit in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou. Civil society leaders from Mali met with five West African presidents.

But the interim leaders of Mali were noticeably absent from the summit meeting. Mali's current president, Dioncounda Traore, has been receiving medical treatment in Paris since he was attacked by protesters in May. No reason was given for the absence of Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra.

The ECOWAS mediator for the Malian crisis and president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, opened the regional summit by saying it was necessary to "take urgent steps to confront the terrorist peril in the north of the country."

Islamist-controlled north

The Islamist group Ansar Dine seized control of Mali's north, a region roughly the size of France, after a coup by renegade military officers in March threw the once stable West African nation into chaos.

Originally, ethnic Tuareg separatists declared the independence of northern Mali in April. But Ansar Dine subsequently managed to defeat the Tuaregs and seize the region for themselves.

Map of Mali

Timbuktu is currently under Islamist control

The Islamist group, which is reportedly al-Qaeda affiliated, sparked international outrage recently when its members began destroying the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in the historic city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ansar Dine, which practices a radical form of Islam, considers the mausoleums to be sacrilegious.

ECOWAS has reportedly drafted plans to deploy some 3,000 troops to the region to push out the Islamists, but such a move would require a United Nations Security Council mandate.

Nearly 200,000 people have fled Mali for neighboring countries since the March coup that threw the country into turmoil. Another 150,000 people are displaced within Mali itself.

slk/jlw (AFP, dpa