2012-06-30 15:04


by Shaun Tandon

A senior US official on Friday urged a political solution in Mali and warned of the risks of a proposed African military intervention to solve the country's overlapping crises.

Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for Africa, called for Mali to hold elections by May 2013, when an interim government's term runs out, and said the United States would step up cooperation with elected leaders.

Disgruntled troops swarmed the capital Bamako on March 22 and ousted the elected president of what had been seen as one of Africa's model democracies. In the ensuing chaos, ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamist hardliners have taken over a stretch of northern Mali that is the size of Afghanistan.

"No lasting solution to the problems in northern Mali will be possible without a legitimate interlocutor in Bamako," Carson told a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Extremist militants have since imposed an austere version of sharia law in northern Mali. Witnesses told AFP earlier that Tuareg rebels left the historic city of Timbuktu on the orders of the armed group Ansar Dine.

Leaders of the West African bloc ECOWAS were meeting in Ivory Coast meanwhile in a bid to end the crisis. ECOWAS has strongly condemned the ouster of the elected government and is considering sending a military force to Mali.

Carson offered support for ECOWAS efforts but was cautious about the potential military force, saying that any effort should be focused on stabilizing Mali's south and not restoring control over the north.

"One has to take into account that the government in the south has no effective military now. It lost over half of its equipment when it left the northern part of the country," Carson said.

"Any effort to look at retaking the north would be a significant undertaking for ECOWAS," Carson said, adding that any mission "must be thought out carefully and planned well and resourced appropriately."

Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey who heads the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, said that any peacekeeping effort that focuses on the North would be "tremendously sensitive."

But he called for active efforts on Mali, saying that there were "too many people affected for the United States to fail to provide leadership in the effort to solve this political-social crisis."

Carson said it was critical to address "the legitimate grievances" of the long-running Tuareg rebellion and to support negotiations with groups that are willing to talk to Bamako.

Carson said radical groups such as Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb were largely a "spillover" from neighboring countries such as Algeria, Libya and Mauritania, and did not enjoy a constituency inside Mali.

"As Algeria has effectively dealt with its Islamic extremists and terrorist problem, many of those people have drifted down across the Algerian border into northern Mali, which is a very, very large territory and very, very sparsely populated," Carson said.

The official said that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine were "dangerous and lethal." He said they were "relatively small" and were not known to pose a threat to the United States.

"They are not representative of the vast, overwhelming majority of Malians in the north and they certainly don't represent the point of view of the way Islam should be practiced in Mali," Carson added.

Worsening the situation, Mali and its neighbors are experiencing food shortages due to drought and instability.

Some 4.6 million people in Mali are estimated to be "food insecure" and 341,000 people are displaced or have fled to neighboring countries, testified Earl Gast, a senior official at the US Agency for International Development.

The United States terminated most assistance to Bamako in accordance with its laws after the coup but has provided more than $60 million in the current fiscal year for humanitarian needs inside Mali and to Malian refugees, he said.