Malian troops backed by foreign air power will lead the assault to recapture Timbuktu and other northern cities from al Qaeda-linked militants, under a battle plan now being considered, Malian army sources said.
West African bloc ECOWAS is expected to submit a version of the plan to the United Nations Security Council for approval, paving the way for war in Mali’s vast desert amid fears the region could become a new terrorist training ground.
“International forces will not do the ground fighting, that role will belong to the Malian army,” a military officer familiar with the plan, who asked not to be named, said on Friday.
“Air strikes will be the responsibility of the international force,” he said, adding foreign partners would also provide logistical and intelligence support and soldiers and police to secure areas captured by the Malian army.
Military planners from Africa, the United Nations and Europe in Mali’s capital Bamako last month drew up a battle plan that would involve a foreign force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries. It remains unclear how much of the force would come from Western nations.
The plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali’s south, followed by combat operations in the north.
A second Malian military source said the army expected Islamist rebels to try to avoid conventional fighting by slipping away into remote mountains or blending in with local populations.
“That is the main problem, and it will fall to our intelligence services to solve it,” he said.
The Security Council gave African leaders 45 days from October 12 to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake the north, but diplomats say any such operation is months away.
Foreign powers are divided on the pace of an intervention. Regional powerhouse Algeria says it prefers a negotiated solution, while former colonial master France – which has several citizens held hostage by al Qaeda-linked groups in the Sahara – wants a swift war.