UN: No offensive in Mali until next autumn


UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. peacekeeping chief said Friday he doesn't expect a West African-led military offensive to oust al-Qaida and extremists from northern Mali to begin until September or October of next year.

Herve Ladsous said experts have told the United Nations that before a military operation takes place Mali's army needs to be retrained. Once that happens, another issue will be the rainy season, which should be over by next September, he said.

That will likely disappoint those, especially in Africa, who say an African-led military intervention in northern Mali is urgently needed to keep western Africa from becoming a hotbed of terrorists and drug traffickers.

There is wide agreement that swift action is needed, but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others say the key to successfully reuniting the country is political reconciliation, and military action should be a last resort. The U.S. and the European Union want the Malian army and African troops to be properly trained before they try to retake northern Mali.

France is expected to circulate a draft U.N Security Council resolution early next week that would authorize the training of the Malian army and deployment of an international force. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud has said the resolution will promote two tracks — military and political — and will include benchmarks and regular reports to the Security Council to assess the force's operational capabilities.

"Clearly experts tell us nothing much might happen before September or October for a number of reasons, having to do with the necessity to retrain the army of Mali and also with climatic questions," Ladsous told reporters. "It's a very difficult part of the world."

Earlier this week, U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman told the Security Council that military and police planners from the West African group ECOWAS, as well as the African Union, U.N., and Mali, have been working on an operational plan for military action. But he said questions remain about how the forces would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed. In addition, he said, significant international support will be needed to carry out operations against terrorist groups and their affiliates in the North.

Mali was plunged into turmoil in March after a coup in the capital of Bamako created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the North as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were ousted by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.

Mali rebel factions recently sent delegations to Algeria and Burkina Faso, whose president, Blaise Compaore, was appointed official negotiator by west African nations. Algeria has always maintained influence in northern Mali and has expressed reservations about west African plans to help Mali's transitional government reconquer the north.

The United States announced that it is backing a lead role for Algeria in promoting dialogue between Mali's government and the rebels.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns described Algeria as the "leader" in conducting the dialogue during a press conference in Algiers late Thursday.

On another front, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, the U.N. envoy for the Sahel, met in Rome on Friday with special envoys, mediators and senior U.N. officials dealing with the crisis in the sub-Saharan region which includes Mali.

Prodi said participants discussed the coordination of efforts to address the crisis in Mali and challenges in the broader region and underlined the need to work together to support Mali and the countries in promoting peace and development.