Mali seeks French help against extremists

Mali's president asked France for help Thursday to counter an offensive by extremist and terrorist groups who control the northern half of the country and are heading south.

France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters after an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that urgent action is needed against the groups who captured the city of Konna Thursday and are now threatening the city of Mopti, which has 100,000 inhabitants.

The Security Council expressed "grave concern" at the military action by the terrorist and extremist groups and called on U.N. member states "to provide assistance to the Malian Defense and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."

Araud said it was urgent to act against the threat and to work to restore the country's stability.

"This terrorist attack weakens even more the stability of Mali and thereby that of its neighbors," he said. "Sustainability of the Malian government and the protection of civilian populations are now at stake."

Araud said Mali's President Dioncounda Traore sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which he transmitted to the Security Council, and a similar letter to French President Francois Hollande seeking assistance from France, the country's former colonial power, against the offensive.

"It's up to the authorities of my country to decide and announce the nature of this assistance," he said. "It will be announced in Paris tomorrow."

Araud said council resolutions "call on all member states to provide assistance in resolving the Malian crisis in all its aspects, including military and political - and I emphasize - to provide support to the authorities of this country to put an end to the terrorist threat."

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice, asked whether the president of Mali requested specific kinds of military support and troops, said: "It wasn't specific, but it basically said, `Help! France.'"

Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, which have imposed strict Shariah law throughout the north.

Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.

The Security Council in December authorized an African-led force to support Malian forces in recovering the north - an area the size of Texas - but set no timeline for military action. Instead, it set out benchmarks to be met before the start of offensive operations, beginning with progress on a political roadmap to restore constitutional order, political reconciliation, elections and training of the Malian and African troops and police.

The Security Council called for "the immediate issuance of an agreed political roadmap, which includes serious negotiations with non-extremist Malians in the north and presses for the full restoration of democratic governance."

The council also called for the rapid deployment of the African-led force.

The retreat by the Malian military in Thursday's fighting, however, raised questions in the closed Security Council consultations about its ability to help lead a regional intervention, council diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private.

According to the diplomats, the Malian army melted away in the face of the offensive.

Rice, the U.S. ambassador, said "there was clear-cut consensus about the gravity of the situation and the right of the Malian authorities to seek what assistance they can receive."

She said the Security Council has been encouraging the West African regional group, ECOWAS, to present "a viable plan" as soon as possible to retake the north "and even today the plan to our minds still requires refinement."

"But the point is not that," she said. "The point is that we've got extremists who have very worrying, if not nefarious, ambitions that need to be thwarted, and whether-the best would have been if the Malian army had the capacity and the will to do so back last spring and even still today."

One of the things the Security Council discussed, Rice said, "is the extent to which the Malians are ready and willing to defend their own country."