The African Union has readmitted Mali as a member state, ending a seven-month suspension imposed during a military coup. Planning continues for a military intervention to recapture Mali's north from Islamists.
The African Union (AU) on Wednesday presented a strategic plan to restore political stability in Mali, calling on the beleaguered west African nation to hold free elections by early next year.
After reinstating the divided country as a member of the AU, the bloc said that it was in the final stages of planning for a military intervention to drive Islamists out Mali's north. Both France and Germany have expressed their willingness to provide logistical support and training for such an intervention.
"We are working … to finalize the joint planning for the early deployment of an African-led international military force to help Mali recover the occupied territories from the north," said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairwoman of the African Union Commission.
"At the same time, we will leave the door of dialogue open to those Malian rebel groups willing to negotiate," she said.
The AU had suspended Mali's membership in the bloc in response to a military coup staged by a group of disgruntled soldiers last March. Tuareg and Islamist rebels exploited the chaos following the coup to capture the northern two-thirds of the country. The Islamists subsequently overpowered the secular Tuaregs and now control much of the north.
The United Nations has accused the Islamist rebels of committing human rights violations while imposing a radical form of Shariah law. And Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine - which has alleged ties to al Qaeda - have destroyed the tombs of Muslim saints in the city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Some 330,000 people have fled their homes as a consequence of the fighting in Mali's north. The violence has exacerbated an already delicate humanitarian situation in the country. A drought has left one-third of Malians in a food crisis, with 1.6 million people in the north and 3 million in the south in need of assistance.
"The risk of a further worsening in the humanitarian situation in the region and throughout the Sahel is high," said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Maurer also warned that a military intervention in Mali could bring hardship on a population already struggling with drought and displacement.
"In the event of military deployments and renewed hostilities in the north of Mali there would inevitably be consequences for the population, and we have to be ready to respond," the ICRC chief said.
slk/ipj (AFP, dpa, Reuters)