Malian troops headed for the remote northeastern town of Kidal on Sunday ahead of a mid-May deadline set by the government to wrest it from the control of Tuareg separatist rebels.
French forces which swept Islamist insurgents from the far north of Mali have allowed the MNLA rebels to run Kidal in recent months but Mali’s government wants to reimpose its authority ahead of July presidential and legislative elections.
The votes are intended to seal Mali’s democratic transition in the wake of a March 2012 coup triggered by a Tuareg uprising, after which al Qaeda-linked Islamists seized control of the northern two-thirds of the landlocked West African country.
A column of Malian troops left Gao, the largest city of northern Mali, for Kidal earlier this week. Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara told parliament this month that the question of MNLA control over Kidal would be resolved by May 15.
The MNLA has rejected Bamako’s calls for it to lay down its weapons, saying it would resist any Malian attempts to retake Kidal, but has said it is open to political negotiations with the government.
One military source, who asked not to be identified, said army forces had established advanced positions on the road to the small town of Anefis, 90 km (55 miles) southwest of Kidal.
The MNLA dismissed an earlier report that Malian forces had entered Anefis and said their fighters remained in control of the town.
A second army column was heading for Menaka, a town in eastern Mali close to the Niger border which was taken by the MNLA and then the Islamists last year.
President Goodluck Jonathan has called on the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) holding in Abuja to come up with bold decisions that will help re- enforce peace and security not only in Guinea-Bissau and Mali but the entire West African sub region.
The President who was the first to address the summit’s opening session, stated that Nigeria fully supports the recommendations of the Chiefs of Defence Staff for an intervention force to be deployed immediately to Mali to help restore order and stability.
He said that “the decision is consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolution which supports the use of force to flush out the rebels and anarchist that have turned that country into a lawless zone.”
“This, we (ECOWAS) must do to avert costly consequences not only in Mali but the entire sub region and Africa in general.”
Since January 2012, several insurgent groups have been fighting a campaign against the Malian government for independence or greater autonomy for northern Mali-an area known as Azawad.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an organization fighting to make Azawad an independent homeland for the Tuareg people, had taken control of the region by April and declared independence.
The country has also witnessed a number of Coup d’état and attacks on the Presidential villa in the year.
Turning to Guinea Bissau, President Jonathan said that the situation there requires the injection of funds to stabilise the polity for the total restoration of constitutional order, to ensure that the interim administration in the country is stable.
The African Union plans to refer the situation in Mali to the United Nations Security Council so that it can create a framework for tackling the worsening crisis there, a diplomatic source close to the AU president said on Wednesday.
Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
A regionally backed transitional government has been set up in Bamako to organise new presidential elections within a year, though supporters of the ruling military junta oppose the plan.
“The African Union will go to the Security Council and then it will be up to it to find the right format for a resolution and if it deems military support necessary,” said the source close to Thomas Boni Yayi, the Benin president and head of the African Union.
He said it was not clear when the issue would be taken to the United Nations.
An agreement between northern Mali’s MNLA Tuareg rebels and the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine to create an Islamic state in northern Mali’s Azawad desert has hit trouble over how strictly to impose sharia, Islamic law.
The separatist MNLA wants a moderate form of sharia, while Ansar Dine would like to impose a more hardline version, using punishments such as the amputation of hands and heads for certain crimes.
The West African group ECOWAS said it rejected the idea of a separate Islamic state in northern Mali, and new French President Francois Hollande urged African leaders on Tuesday to ask the U.N. Security Council to help restore stability in the region.