Ouagadougou - The African Union has endorsed a plan for military intervention to regain control of Mali's desert north from Islamist rebels and restore the authority of the state.
African nations and the international community have expressed growing concern over the continued occupation of Mali's north since it could provide a safe haven to al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups and criminal gangs.
Leaders from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) meeting on Sunday in Abuja agreed to send 3 300 soldiers to retake control of north Mali, which has been occupied since April.
On Tuesday, the African Union (AU) endorsed the military intervention.
The AU Peace and Security Council "has decided ... to endorse a harmonised concept of operations for the planned deployment of AFISMA, which is the African-led mission in support of Mali," the union's Commissioner for Peace and Security Ramtane Lamamra told reporters, after a meeting in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
Lamamra did not provide details of the mission, but said its goal would be to "regain the occupied regions in the north of the country, dismantle the terrorist and criminal networks and restore effectively the authority of the state over the entire national territory."
He said the AU urged the United Nations to "authorise for an initial period of one year the planned deployment" of the force.
Lamamra said he believes the UN will pass a resolution approving the mission before the end of the year, but did not confirm when the first troops could be deployed.
Such a force is expected to come from Ecowas members, but also possibly from countries outside the regional bloc as well, according to Lamamra.
UN special envoy Romano Prodi said he will call an international meeting on the Mali crisis in December, but spoke in favour of a negotiated settlement rather than military intervention.
Speaking after talks with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in New York, Prodi told reporters he would call envoys from countries and regional groups - including the African Union, France and Britain - to the meeting in Rome. No exact date has been fixed.
The former Italian premier said he was also trying to set up a humanitarian aid fund for the Sahel region.
"You need a long time to prepare a military operation," Prodi said, adding that he would use the time to work on a possible negotiated settlement.
Meeting with rebels
Meanwhile the UN's representative in West Africa Said Djinnit met representatives of Islamist rebels Ansar Dine at a private residence in Ouagadougou, marking their first official contact.
The meeting came after Djinnit held talks with Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, the regional chief mediator in the crisis.
Djinnit stressed that "all options and avenues of dialogue should be exploited to try to fix the problem in a peaceful manner."
Mohamed Ag Aharib, an Ansar Dine representative said his group "assured (Djinnit) that we are ready to dialogue."
He underlined that his movement, one of the Islamist groups occupying the north, was waiting from a sign from Malian authorities that they were also seeking peace.
Tuareg rebels, who also met Djinnit in Ouagadougou, separately said they were "completely open to dialogue," according to Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, one of the leaders of the movement.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in Bamako in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had re-launched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing their version of strict Islamic law, meting out punishments including public stonings and floggings and destroying World Heritage sites they considered idolatrous.
Djinnit said he "cannot speak about the deadline for the deployment" of an invasion force.
But he too stressed that "the option preferred by everyone, including Ecowas, the African Union and the United Nations, is the option of dialogue, and we hope that dialogue will take place as soon as possible".
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande said "France and Europe will provide logistic support, and training" to any mission but stressed that France would not intervene on its own in the crisis.