EDITH M. LEDERER
UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- The U.N. Security Council on Thursday authorized military action to wrest northern Mali from the control of al-Qaida-linked extremists but demanded progress first on political reconciliation, elections and training African troops and police.
A resolution adopted unanimously by the U.N.'s most powerful body stressed that there must be a two-track plan, political and military, to reunify the country, which has been in turmoil since a coup in March.
The Security Council authorized an African-led force to support Malian authorities 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.
The resolution also emphasizes that further military planning is needed before the African-led force is sent to the north and asks Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "confirm in advance the council's satisfaction with the planned military offensive operation."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said recently he does not expect a military operation to begin until September or October of next year.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters Thursday it's premature to say when the military operation will take place because African and Malian troops must be trained and much depends on the political process and the country's extreme weather.
"Our goal would be to have a real political process which will allow the Malian army to go back to its barracks in the northern part of the country without fighting," he said. "That would be our preferred option."
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 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 now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
Many residents of northern Mali have expressed deep dismay at the timetable for the intervention, saying that the longer the world waits, the more entrenched the militants are becoming.
El Hadji Baba Haidara, a member of the Malian parliament for the northern city of Timbuktu, welcomed the resolution "in the hope of seeing our cities liberated as soon as possible."
"If we have wished for this resolution, it's not to wipe out our people with soldiers but rather to drive out the armed groups who occupy our towns," he said.
Timbuktu's Mayor Ousmane Halle said Wednesday in a telephone interview that he feels abandoned by the West, and that only people who are not living through what he and his citizens are living through could consider holding off military action until next fall. "A living hell," he said.
Coup members created new political turmoil earlier this month when they arrested the country's prime minister -- a move that raised new concerns about the ability of the Malian military to take part in the operation to retake the north. The Security Council strongly condemned the Malian security forces for their continued interference in the work of the transitional authorities, and stressed the need to expeditiously restore democratic governance and constitutional order.
As the council spent months negotiating over what action to take, an Islamist group behind public executions and amputations in northern Mali, Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith," has expanded its reach. The fighters, whose territory includes Timbuktu, have stoned to death a couple accused of adultery, hacked off the hands of thieves and have recruited children as young as 12 into their ranks. Heavily armed men also have attacked bars that sell alcohol, and banned men and women from socializing in the streets.
Ansar Dine has been attracting new members because it is now seen as the only Islamist group in the north that can be brought to the negotiating table, analysts say. That's in part because their leaders are all Malian nationals who own property in north Mali and stand to lose the most if an international military operation succeeds.
On Nov. 13, the African Union asked the Security Council to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali. The plan, agreed to by leaders of the West African bloc known as ECOWAS, called for 3,300 soldiers to be deployed to Mali for an initial period of one year.
The resolution authorizes an African-led International Support Mission in Mali, to be known as AFISMA, for an initial period of one year but makes no mention of its size. It welcomes troop contributions pledged by ECOWAS and calls on member states, including from the neighboring Sahel region, to contribute troops to the mission. Council diplomats say the best-trained African troops in desert warfare are from Chad, Mauritania and Niger.