Thousands rally for peace in Mali

Bamako - Up to 60 000 people gathered on Sunday for a giant peace rally in Mali, which was split in two after Islamists wrested control of the vast desert north following a March coup in the capital Bamako.

The meeting for "national peace and reconciliation" in the main stadium of the capital Bamako was called by the country's top Muslim body and drew several politicians including Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra.

An AFP reporter put the crowd at between 50 000 and 60 000.

"Let us pray for Mali, let us pray for peace," said Mahmoud Dicko, the head of Mali's High Islamic Council.

"Our country needs peace and national healing," said Madani Ousmane Haidara, a prominent imam.

"It's up to Malians to find a solution and I ask all Malians to forgive each other," Haidara said.

In Bamako, interim authorities who took over from the junta have stood by helplessly as Islamists have tightened their hold in the north, and are now working to form a stronger unity government on the orders of west African mediators.

The Ecowas west African regional bloc has 3 300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.

The UN Security Council is ready to approve this, but is awaiting a formal request from Bamako as well as more information on the size, means and mandate of the proposed force.

The Islamist groups - which security experts say are acting under the aegis of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) - seized key northern cities in the chaos that followed a coup d'etat in Bamako on March 22 that toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure.

The takeover was spearheaded by Tuareg rebels seeking an independent state for their nomadic desert tribe, but the extremists have pushed them aside and seek an Islamic state in the zone, an area larger than France or Texas.

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