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African Union, in letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asks for quick action on Mali

In an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the president of the African Union on Thursday urged the U.N. to take immediate military action in northern Mali, which was seized by al-Qaida-linked rebels earlier this year.

Yayi Boni, the president of Benin and also the current head of the African Union, said that any reticence on the part of the U.N. will be interpreted as a sign of weakness by the terrorists operating in Mali. The continental body is waiting for the U.N. to sign off on a military plan to take back the occupied territory, and the Security Council is expected to discuss it in coming days.

In a report circulated late Wednesday to the Security Council, Ban said that the plan put forward by the AU "needs to be developed further" because fundamental questions on how the force will be led, trained and equipped remain unanswered. Ban acknowledged that with each passing day, the al-Qaida-linked fighters are becoming further entrenched, but he cautioned that a botched military operation could result in severe human rights abuses.

On November 13 the African Union asked the U.N. to endorse a military intervention to free northern Mali, calling for 3,300 African soldiers to be deployed for an initial period of one year. A U.S.-based counterterrorism official who saw the military plan said that it was "amateurish" and had "huge, gaping holes." The draft of the plan was a mere dozen pages. A thorough, military plan, said the official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, is on the order of several hundred pages.

Boni, in his letter, said that Africa is counting on the U.N. to take decisive action. "I need to tell you with how much impatience the African continent is awaiting a strong message from the international community regarding the resolution of the crisis in Mali ... What we need to avoid is the impression that we are lacking in resolve in the face of these determined terrorists," he said.

The letter goes on: "Any retreat in the face of the need to urgently send an international force to combat terrorism in northern Mali will be interpreted as a sign of weakness ... It's why I think that your report needs to make clear the need to send an international force to Mali, and even to give an ultimatum to the armed groups."

The nation of Mali, once held up as an example of a stable, established democracy, fell apart in March, following an unplanned coup by junior officers. They seized the presidential palace in the capital, and in the uncertainty and chaos that ensued, rebels including at least three groups with known ties to al-Qaida, grabbed control of the nation's distant north.

On Thursday Islamists meted out the latest Shariah punishment in the fabled northern city of Timbuktu, once a Lonely Planet hotspot which boasted direct international flights to Europe. Six young men and women were each given 100 lashes for having talked to each other on city streets, say witnesses.

The Islamists control an area the size of France or Texas, starting just north of the central Malian town of Mopti, an enormous triangle of land that includes the country's borders with neighboring Mauritania, Algeria and Niger.

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Associated Press writer Virgile Ahissou contributed to this report from Cotonou, Benin.