BAMAKO, Mali, July 6 (UPI) -- The Economic Community of West African States is planning to send 3,000 to 5,000 troops to Mali to combat Islamic extremists, an official said Friday.
Abdel-Fatau Musah, the ECOWAS director for external relations, called the deployment "imminent," The Guardian reported.
"We are very concerned about what is happening in northern Mali, particularly with the carnage and killing, and barbaric acts that are going on in Timbuktu, and the destruction of heritage sites," he said.
Musah said fighting between government forces and militants affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb threatens to turn Mali into "the next Somalia" and to undermine peace and security in the region.
Also Friday, UNICEF, the United Nations child welfare organization, released a report saying at least 175 boys have been recruited as soldiers since March. Other types of violence are also occurring, UNICEF said, citing eight reports of girls sexually assaulted and two of boys killed by roadside bombs.
"These numbers are reason for alarm especially because they represent only a partial picture of the child protection context in the north -- an area where access for humanitarian workers is limited," the UNICEF representative in Mali, Theophane Nikyema, said.
Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, is a landlocked state in West Africa. A group of junior military officers staged a coup in March, while in April the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad declared an independent state, leaving the government in control of only the southern third of Mali.