LONDON – A planned African-led military offensive to reclaim northern Mali from al-Qaida-linked rebels is unlikely to begin before next year — despite growing concern about the terrorist threat militants there pose to the continent and the rest of the world, a Western official said Tuesday.
An international plan is being finalized to help Mali's weak interim government root out the Islamist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, that have become the de facto rulers of the country's north following chaos prompted by a military coup in March.
Proposals for an offensive by Mali's forces, supported by troops from neighboring nations and other African Union states — but not Western countries — are to be discussed at a meeting of African officials in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Wednesday.
However, diplomats expect that the preparations and moves to secure a United Nations Security Council resolution to authorize the action could take months.
Ex-British aid minister Stephen O'Brien, U.K. special representative to the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, which includes Mali, said nations will take until December to work out what help to provide to the troubled West African country.
The assistance will likely include training for the nation's armed forces, help with military logistics and work on a plan to hold elections in 2013.
"That will all, around the turn of the year, start developing a very clear twin track approach — on both the political and the possible military side," O'Brien said.
France, which plans to move surveillance drones to West Africa and is holding secret talks with U.S. officials on Mali, has pressed for quicker action, as have some African nations. Last month, French President Francois Hollande called for an African-led military intervention in Mali "as quickly as possible."
O'Brien insisted that plans won't likely be finalized by the year's end, but acknowledged there are growing concerns over the security risks posed by extremists sheltering in northern Mali.
"Al-Qaida in the Maghreb, which has activities in the area, is growing in both capability and ambition, and if we don't act there is a very real threat of further attacks in Africa, and eventually Europe, the Middle East and beyond," he said.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said he was also growing increasingly wary. "If the north of Mali falls apart, if terrorist schools appear and a safe haven is created for terrorists worldwide, then it won't just endanger Mali and the North African states, but it endangers us in Europe, too," he said.
Asked by The Associated Press if Germany would consider sending unmanned observation drones, like France, he said: "It's too soon to talk about further details."
Westerwelle said European foreign ministers will discuss options for supporting Mali at a meeting on Nov. 19, but insisted that nations in Europe would not contribute troops or weapons — seeking instead to offer training and logistical assistance.
"Weapons deliveries to Mali are not up for debate. It's about a training mission. It's not about combat troops," he said. "It might be about providing logistical, technical and financial help, but that depends on how the situation develops there."
O'Brien said Britain was "in a position where one of the things we could contemplate offering is training of various kinds. At this stage, I'm not going in with a closed mind to rule anything out. We will do our best to play our part. I haven't ruled anything out."
After talks with Westerwelle in Berlin, ex-Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the U.N.'s special envoy for the Sahel, suggested the priority should be a political solution in Mali — where the country's democratically elected leader was ousted in the March coup.
In August, Mali's interim leaders announced a 31-minister government, including five seen as close to coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who nominally handed over power but still has not completely relinquished control. European diplomats said elections are not likely to be held there before next April.
"It is our and my duty to examine all possible solutions and not to fixate on a military solution," Prodi said. "We are facing a particular situation that has a political and ethnic origin, and that's why we should even avoid a military operation. And we can discuss military aspects in a later phase, but there's a real need to find a political solution."
Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.