ABUJA - West African foreign and defence ministers met in Nigeria's capital on Friday to set out a military blueprint aimed at returning Islamist-occupied northern Mali to government control.
The ministers from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States were to forward the plan, formulated by experts and regional military chiefs, to a summit of the bloc's leaders on Sunday which is also being held in Abuja.
It would eventually be transferred for approval at the UN Security Council, which on October 12 set a 45-day timeframe for a blueprint to be submitted.
The plan would be handed over to the United Nations through the African Union's Peace and Security Council, ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said at the opening of Friday's meeting.
At the same time, attempts at dialogue remain ongoing to resolve the crisis, which analysts have warned poses potential problems to other countries in West Africa at risk to violence from Islamist extremists.
"The urgent need to halt the mafia and criminal practices of terrorist groups and the atrocities committed with impunity by the extremists requires a strong mobilisation on behalf of Mali," Ouedraogo said.
He said the bloc should pursue a dual approach of dialogue and military pressure.
Facing a potentially violent ouster, one of the extremist groups, Ansar Dine, which has occupied key cities such as Timbuktu for seven months, has called for dialogue.
On Thursday, the UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, the former Italian prime minister and ex-president of the European Commission, said every effort would be made to avoid military intervention.
Prodi made the comments after meeting Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on Mali. Algeria is seen as important to any military operation, but it has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
While not a member of ECOWAS, it is seen as key due to its superior military capabilities, intelligence services and experience battling Islamist extremism. Algeria also shares a 1,400-kilometre (875-mile) border with Mali.
The ECOWAS military strategy being presented to the ministers on Friday was drawn up with the help of experts from the European Union, African Union, UN and the region, and adopted by regional army chiefs this week.
The details of the plan have not been made public, but army sources say over 4,000 troops could be sent into Mali.
The French defence ministry said foreign and defence ministers from five European countries -- Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy and France -- will meet on November 15 to discuss a European mission aimed at training Malian troops.
The mission could include 200 soldiers and begin in January, an aide to French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched 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 sharia law.