The U.N. Security Council took a key step Friday toward approving military action by an African force in Mali, where religious extremists have capitalized on a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs and political turmoil to seize much of the north.
The resolution does not give the green light for troops to enter the north. However, it gives Mali and its partners 45 days to come up with a detailed plan for the Security Council to approve. The resolution also demands a halt to human rights abuses and warns the Mali military not to meddle in the affairs of its interim government.
Mali and a coalition of West African countries are seeking to send troops into northern Mali to oust armed Islamists who have imposed a severe interpretation of religious law, stoning alleged adulterers to death and banning music and mingling. The extremists piggybacked on the earlier gains of Tuareg separatists who gained ground in the chaotic aftermath of a coup in the south.
France has championed the calls for regional action, drafting the Security Council resolution that passed Friday. While on his first official trip to Africa this week, French President Francois Hollande argued that the situation posed a threat stretching beyond Mali to the rest of Africa and all the way to Europe.
West African countries have pledged to provide forces, but want the blessing of the powerful Security Council, which has pushed for more details about their plans before giving its approval.
The crucial step comes as reports pile up of human rights abuses in the country, the latest from a U.N. human rights official who returned from Mali this week with grim accounts of radicals, flush with kickbacks from drug traffickers, buying women and children. The price for a child soldier: $600 upfront, plus $400 a month for their families. The price for a wife: less than $1,000.
Thousands of people reportedly marched Thursday in the capital, Bamako, urging the military to retake the north. But confusion has muddled efforts in Mali to put a stop to the northern unrest.
Mali itself has waffled on the idea of bringing in troops, eager to stop extremists but uneasy about the idea of forces entering the divided south.
It ultimately sought outside troops, but many experts fear that simply cracking down on the Islamists without tackling government instability and shoring up democracy will fail to solve its problems.
U.S. officials say free, fair elections are needed by spring to usher in permanent leaders to replace the tottering interim government. The military is still undercutting peace in Mali amid reports of torture and disappearances of coup opponents, the International Crisis Group has warned.
"This isn’t just about sending the military up into the north and rooting out the bad guys and everything is OK," said Jon Temin of the United States Institute of Peace. "There are clear problems in Bamako that need to be addressed –- and need to be addressed through a political process."
The Tuareg rebellion was rooted in complaints of the nomadic people being marginalized by the government in the south, which has long had only loose control over the desert north, Temin said. Mali must address the deeper causes of the rebellion to build a more inclusive government.
Neighboring countries have raised concerns that a poorly run military campaign could simply push extremists over their borders instead. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also sounded a note of caution, warning that the campaign could displace more refugees.
"Any proposed military solution to the security crisis in northern Mali should be considered extremely carefully.… There are no easy answers," Ban told a meeting at the U.N. in late September.ALSO:
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Former residents of northern Mali attend a rally in Bamako, the capital, calling on the government to take control of the north. Credit: Harouna Traore / Associated Press