Still, the logistics behind any potential intervention are extremely complicated, and most likely could not take place until the political situation in the south has stabilised. Observers suggest that two of Mali's most prominent neighbours, Niger and Mauritania, would only be able to provide a few hundred soldiers to an African Union force, while others, particularly Algeria and Nigeria, would face political and related problems in doing so
Calls mount for US intervention in Mali
Washington: The ambassador of Niger to the United States, Maman Sidikou, on Thursday called on the U.S. to step up military collaboration with African countries to support a potential intervention in Mali. Sidikou said that an "international solution" was the only way to deal with the deteriorating situation in the country.
In recent weeks, in partnership with Islamist militants, Taureg rebels have made significant gains in a longstanding fight for the independence of the massive northern section of the country. As a result, an estimated 320,000 Malians have been forced to flee the increasingly chaotic situation. Also on Thursday, the U.N.'s refugee agency, UNHCR, massively increased its request for funding for its Mali operation, to 153.7 million dollars.
A UNHCR official characterised the "sharp degeneration of the situation in Mali" as "totally unexpected".
At an event here in Washington, Ambassador Sidikou warned that "Terrorists are consolidating their positions by the day in northern Mali, and we are just talking in countless meetings. Do we pretend to ignore their agenda?"
Sidikou said that agenda was to weaken the states in the region and to create sanctuary for extremist groups. "We are talking to our friends in the U.S. to provide support, equipment, intelligence and training to armed forces in the region," he continued. "Each day we allow Ansar Dine to act in Mali is another day against peace and security at the global level."
Ansar Dine is a Malian Islamist group with reported links to Al- Qaeda. On May 26, Ansar Dine struck an agreement with a prominent but secular group of Taureg rebels known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), collectively declaring that they would form an Islamist state in northern Mali.
For its part, the MNLA has continued a Taureg-led fight for the independence of northern Mali, an area the size of France, that has been taking place on and off since the 1960s. Having long acted as mercenaries for the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, the rebel forces returned to Mali over the past year heavily armed.
While the latest Taureg uprising against the Malian government began in January, recent events were given a significant boost when the civilian government of President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in a coup, flinging an already tenuous situation into chaos.
On Apr. 6, the MNLA unilaterally declared that northern Mali would secede. While the international community was relatively slow to respond, the May 26 announcement of the alliance with Ansar Dine added a new urgency to international discussions.
On Thursday, Ambassador Sidikou warned that a process of "Afghanisation" was taking place in parts of Mali. "Girls are already not being allowed to go to school in northern Mali. To me, this is the first terrible wave of crisis in northern Mali affecting all of us," he said.
Sidikou's appeal came just a day after the head of the African Union, Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi, called for the United Nations Security Council to back African intervention in Mali.
On Tuesday, the new French President Francois Hollande forcefully supported such action, stating that the French government, the former colonial power in Mali and neighbouring countries, would welcome a decision by the Security Council to assist in the developing situation.
A second African grouping, the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, had appeared to back off from earlier threats to intervene militarily after accepting a post-coup transitional president in Mali on May 21.
But the announcement of an Islamic state clearly frightened the group, with the president of the ECOWAS Commission feigning "incomprehension" and strongly condemning the "opportunistic move".
The statement, on May 29, also warned that ECOWAS "will never compromise on the territorial integrity of Mali" and underlined the group's "determination to take all necessary measures to prevent the descent of northern Mali into a zone of lawlessness for terrorists".
ECOWAS is said to have 3,000 soldiers ready for deployment in Mali.
Still, the logistics behind any potential intervention are extremely complicated, and most likely could not take place until the political situation in the south has stabilised. Observers suggest that two of Mali's most prominent neighbours, Niger and Mauritania, would only be able to provide a few hundred soldiers to an African Union force, while others, particularly Algeria and Nigeria, would face political and related problems in doing so.
The prospect of U.S. or other Western soldiers actually going into Mali is also far off. "The problem today is foreign fighters," Rudolph Atallah, a former member of the U.S. Air Force and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, said on Thursday.
"If you look at the letters that came from Osama bin Laden's compound, he told his fighters to focus on Western targets. If the U.S. shows up with boots on the ground anywhere in that area, we give them a raison d'etre."
Still, others suggest that the Islamist connection in Mali is being blown out of proportion.
"People today support Ansar Dine not primarily because of their ideology but because they have been able to deliver more than the other groups, materially and in terms of security," says Anouar Boukhars, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The existence of various Islamist groups in northern Mali should not be overstated. Most Islamist movements in Mali do not advocate the use of violence."
Subsequent events appear to bear out such nuanced caution. By Tuesday, just days after the initial announcement, the MNLA-Ansar Dine alliance had fallen apart, reportedly over disagreement on the imposition of Sharia law.
Nonetheless, the push for intervention continues apace, with some seeing the breakdown of the MNLA-Ansar Dine agreement leading to more instability.
"We're ready to go, provided we have the support," Ambassador Sidikou said on Thursday. "If we don't move quickly, the situation we'll face will be much worse than we have right now. It's that simple."