The U.N. Security Council soon will be asked to approve a Western-backed security force to combat the spreading terrorism threat in Mali, a senior European official said Wednesday.
The force would confront an African affiliate of al-Qaida that has flourished in largely lawless northern Mali and that is expanding its reach.
The force would be made up of African troops primarily financed and possibly armed from outside, the official said. France, for example, is willing to provide unspecified logistical help.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal is not final, said its sponsors want the force approved in a matter of days or weeks. "There is real urgency there," the official said. "The terrorist threat is spreading."
The United States has ruled out any direct military participation in Mali and has not publicly committed to arming or funding such a force.
Mali's interim government has said it would welcome about 3,300 troops from a 15-nation consortium known as the Economic Community of West African States.
"We do have growing concerns," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday. The United States is "working closely to support the efforts of ECOWAS to further elaborate a robust peacekeeping plan with the new interim government of Mali," she said. "We're prepared to support a well-thought-out plan in the Security Council when it comes forward, but with ECOWAS very much in the lead."
The White House has held a series of secret meetings in recent months to examine the threat posed by al-Qaida's franchise in North Africa and consider for the first time whether to prepare for unilateral strikes, U.S. officials said this week.
The deliberations reflect concern that al-Qaida's African affiliate has become more dangerous since gaining control of large pockets of territory and acquiring weapons from post-revolution Libya. The discussions predate the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. compounds in Libya but gained urgency after the assaults there were linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
U.S. officials said the discussions have focused on ways to help regional militaries confront al-Qaida but have also explored the possibility of direct U.S. intervention if the terrorist group continues operating unchecked.
Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, the top State Department official for African affairs, said Tuesday that AQIM and related militant groups in Mali "must be dealt with through security and military means."