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Mali, regional bloc agree on troop deployment: ministers

By AFP

BAMAKO (AFP) - Mali and a West African regional bloc preparing to send troops to help Bamako reclaim the Islamist-seized north have made progress in talks over conditions for the deployment, officials said Sunday.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been jostling for weeks seeking an end to the Malian crisis, which has raised concerns about regional stability and seen Mali split in two after Islamist extremists seized control of the north after a March coup.

ECOWAS has 3,300 regional troops on standby but wants UN approval and has been awaiting the go-ahead from Mali, which is worried about foreign troops flooding into the capital Bamako and only wants the fighters to provide a supporting role.

But on Sunday, Malian Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara said Mali is now prepared for troops to be based in Bamako, a move that had been opposed by interim President Dioncounda Traore.

"Mali is currently in line with ECOWAS, after several clarifications," Camara said, adding that "the (ECOWAS) headquarters would be in Bamako."

Camara was speaking alongside his counterpart Paul Koffi Koffi from the Ivory Coast, which currently chairs ECOWAS.

"We must welcome the agreement that we have just reached with our Malian brothers. Today, we can say that Mali and ECOWAS are on the same page for troop operations on Malian territory," Koffi Koffi said.

ECOWAS is still awaiting UN Security Council approval of the intervention. On Friday the Security Council had called for West African nations to produce a "feasible and actionable" military plan to retake northern Mali from Islamist militants.

Mali was considered one of the region's stable democracies until it was plunged into turmoil in the coup. Extremists allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) swiftly seized key towns in the huge arid north, an area larger than France or Texas, and have implemented hardline sharia law including capital and corporal punishments for relatively minor offences.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently condemned the "serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes" going on in north Mali.

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