The main Tuareg rebel group in northern Mali warned Saturday that any foreign military intervention to remove the Islamists would fail without its support.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) -- a secular separatist group -- conquered northern Mali early this year but was soon overpowered by groups with ties to Al-Qaeda and regional drug-trafficking.
"Any military intervention by the sub-region or the international community is doomed if it does not rely on the MNLA," said an open letter posted on the group's website.
The document was signed by MNLA officials Hamma Ag Mahmoud and Moussa Ag Assarid and addressed to the United Nations, European Union, African Union and regional bloc ECOWAS.
The warning comes as ECOWAS leaders meet in an emergency summit in Nigeria to plot a military strategy for the reconquest of northern Mali.
Islamist groups affiliated to the regional branch of Al-Qaeda have implemented an extreme form of sharia in northern Mali, amputating, whipping or lynching offenders.
The West has expressed growing concern that the vast region -- larger than France or Texas -- now under Islamist control could become what Afghanistan was to Al-Qaeda a decade ago.
ECOWAS says it has more than 3,000 troops ready to enter Mali and help the embattled interim government in Bamako wrest back control of the country's northern half.
The MNLA, which briefly proclaimed the independence of Azawad before being overpowered by the Islamists earlier this year, argues any foreign force needs its expertise to claim the upper hand.
"The MNLA has a perfect command of desert warfare and local sociological realities. It has knowledge of the terrain and enjoys the support of the local population," the letter said.
Another Tuareg official, Moussa Ag Attaher, told an Algerian newspaper that he MNLA "supported all dialogue channels to solve the Malian conflict and therefore opposed the supporters of an intervention."© ANP/AFP