ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast, Dec. 5 (UPI) -- The Ivorian president said Wednesday that an African-led force could be on the ground in Mali as early as the first quarter of 2013.
Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara serves as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States. He was quoted by Voice of America as saying "urgent" action was needed to restore security to parts of Mali.
Rebel groups, some of which are aligned with al-Qaida, claimed autonomy for northern Mali following a series of political upheavals early this year.
The U.S.-funded news agency reports that leaders in Mali met with members of northern rebel groups to find common ground for eventual negotiations.
ECOWAS had proposed a 3,000-member neutral force for Mali. Last weekend, the ECOWAS Council of Ministers said from Abidjan it was "disturbed" by what it said was the lack of urgency regarding the deployment of African forces to Mali.
The council said the situation in northern Mali calls for "urgent action and proactive measures" to break up terrorist networks and restore the country's territorial integrity.
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