The U.N. Security Council on Thursday unanimously approved sending an African-led military force to help reconquer northern Mali from Islamist militants.
A resolution passed by the 15-member council gave the force an initial one-year mandate to use "all necessary measures" to help the Mali government take back territory from "terrorist, extremist and armed groups."
West African nations say they have 3,300 troops ready to go to Mali to help rebuild the country's army and support a military operation which planners say cannot be launched before September of next year.
Tuareg rebels and other separatists and Al-Qaeda linked groups took advantage of a coup in Mali in March to seize a vast chunk of territory where the militants have imposed a brutal form of Islamic law.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly welcomed the resolution as "an historic step" in the battle against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies.
France drew up the resolution after weeks of talks with the United States, which had expressed doubts that the troops from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) would be tough enough for the desert battle against the militants.
The United States finally co-sponsored the resolution voted Thursday and is expected to become a major backer of the new force.
The resolution lays down that alongside political efforts to draw the Tuareg rebels into a coalition against the extremist groups, European nations and the international force, to be known as the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), will at first train Mali's army.
The resolution says "military planning will need to be further refined" and sets down benchmarks for political progress and military preparations that will have to be met before a final onslaught against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies is approved.
The council said it would "monitor closely these benchmarks before the commencement of offensive operations in the north of Mali."
It said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, ECOWAS, the African Union and other states involved will have to secure "the council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation."
"Nobody is ignoring the complexity of the task that awaits the international community to restore the territorial integrity of Mali and to end the terrorist activities in the north of the country," said France's UN ambassador Gerard Araud.
He told reporters the guidelines in the resolution were "reasonable" and put the emphasis on a political solution before any military strikes are ordered.
Funding has been another controversy ahead of the force's approval. Ban angered African nations when he said the United Nations cannot pay for the force. He is now under pressure to find ways to provide cash for logistics support to the force, diplomats said.
The resolution called on U.N. member states and international organizations to pay for AFISMA. The Security Council said it would consider setting up a new U.N. fund for equipment and services for the force.
President says extremists not foreigners
Meanwhile, Mali’s president acknowledged Wednesday that the Islamist group carrying out public executions and amputations in the country’s north is made up mostly of Malians and not foreign fighters, a declaration that appears aimed at fostering dialogue with the group, the Associated Press reported.
The comments mark the first time Mali’s leader has acknowledged that the Ansar Dine group includes mostly Malians. Previously the government had maintained the group included militants from al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch and other foreigners who invaded Mali in the wake of a coup in March.
On Wednesday, though, President Dioncounda Traore said Ansar Dine fighters “are mainly made up of our fellow countrymen.”
He also noted the presence in northern Mali of Nigerian terror group Boko Haram and Qaeda’s North Africa branch, or AQIM, in the area, which has known links to Ansar Dine.
Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith,” controls the towns of Kidal and Timbuktu in northern Mali, where they have imposed a strict form of Islamic law known as Shariah there.
They’ve stoned to death a couple accused of adultery and accused thieves have had their hands hacked off hacked off. Ansar Dine also has recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks and forced women to wear head-to-toe veils.