West African nations on Friday plotted military force against "terrorist groups" in Islamist-occupied northern Mali as regional foreign and defence ministers met on a strategy to win back the vast territory.
The ministers from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States were to move forward on a plan aimed at returning Mali's north to government control at a summit of the bloc's leaders on Sunday, also in Abuja.
It would eventually be transferred for approval at the UN Security Council, which on October 12 set a 45-day timeframe for a blueprint.
The plan would be handed over to the United Nations through the African Union's Peace and Security Council, ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said at the meeting's opening on Friday.
At the same time, attempts at dialogue remain ongoing to resolve the crisis, which analysts have warned poses potential problems to other countries in west Africa at risk of violence from Islamist extremists.
"The urgent need to halt the mafia and criminal practices of terrorist groups and the atrocities committed with impunity by the extremists requires a strong mobilisation on behalf of Mali," Ouedraogo said.
He said the bloc should pursue a dual approach of dialogue and military pressure allowing it to "stand by Mali ... and help her regain her territorial integrity (and) dismantle terrorist networks."
Nigerian junior foreign minister Nurudeen Mohammed warned that failing to contain insecurity in the Sahel region "portends a great danger to the African continent and the whole world at large".
"It is evidently clear that these outlaws lost all overtures made for dialogue and have gone wild by attacking ... the UN heritage sites," he said.
He also accused them of conscripting children into militias and kidnappings, along with arms, drugs and human trafficking "and the dispersal of armed groups across borders."
Facing a potentially violent ouster, one of the extremist groups, Ansar Dine, which has occupied key cities such as Timbuktu for seven months, has called for dialogue.
On Thursday, the UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and ex-president of the European Commission, said every effort would be made to avoid military intervention.
Prodi made the comments after meeting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Mali. Algeria is seen as important to any military operation, but it has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
While not a member of ECOWAS, Algeria is seen as key due to its superior military capabilities, intelligence services and experience battling Islamist extremism. Algeria also shares a 1,400-kilometre (875-mile) border with Mali.
The ECOWAS military strategy being presented to the ministers on Friday was drawn up with the help of experts from the European Union, African Union, UN and the region, and adopted by regional army chiefs this week.
The details of the plan have not been made public, but army sources say more than 4,000 troops could be sent into Mali.
The French defence ministry said foreign and defence ministers from five European countries -- Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy and France -- will meet on November 15 to discuss a European mission aimed at training Malian troops.
The mission could include 200 soldiers and begin in January, an aide of French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing their version of strict sharia law.© ANP/AFP