West African leaders meet at an emergency summit to firm up military plans to win back Islamist-held northern Mali, as fears grow over the risks the extremists pose to the region and beyond.
Leaders from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States will meet in the Nigerian capital Abuja to approve a military blueprint for action. That plan will eventually be sent via the African Union to the UN Security Council for review.
Countries from outside ECOWAS have also been invited to attend the summit, including South Africa, Mauritania, Morocco, Libya, Algeria and Chad, according to a source from the bloc.
Discussions so far have involved the deployment of more than 3,000 troops from the region, backed by soldiers other countries. The ECOWAS source said military chiefs were requesting a total of 5,500 troops.
Regional leaders have stressed that dialogue remains the preferred option to resolve the crisis in Mali's north, but they have also warned that talks are not open-ended.
ECOWAS Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo has said that the bloc should pursue a dual approach of dialogue and military pressure.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, a former prime minister of Italy and ex-president of the European Commission, has said every effort would be made to avoid military intervention.
But some analysts have questioned whether a negotiated solution is possible with Islamist extremists intent on establishing a theocratic state.
"There's a sense in which (military force) is the only course open, because clearly there's nothing to negotiate," said Jibrin Ibrahim, head of the Nigeria-based Centre for Democracy and Development.
At the same time, analysts and others warn of the risks a continued occupation of the north poses to countries beyond Mali. They say it could provide a safe haven to Al Qaeda-linked extremists and criminal groups.
The ECOWAS military strategy the leaders are to examine Sunday was drawn up with the help of experts from the European Union, African Union, UN and the region. The region is also seeking logistical support from elsewhere.
Foreign and defence ministers from five European countries - France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain - are expected to meet next Thursday to discuss a European mission train Malian troops.
Algeria, seen as important to any military operation, has been hesitant to get involved, preferring a negotiated solution.
While not a member of ECOWAS, Algeria is viewed as key due to its superior military capabilities, intelligence services and experience battling Islamist extremism. It also shares a 1,400-kilometre border with Mali.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in March allowed Tuareg desert nomads, who had relaunched a decades-old rebellion for independence, to seize the main towns in the north with the help of Islamist allies.
The secular separatists were quickly sidelined by the Islamists, who had little interest in their aspirations for an independent homeland and set about implementing their version of strict sharia law.
Key events in the north of the west African state of Mali, which has been occupied by armed Islamist groups since March, when a coup overthrew the elected government:
- March 22: Mutinous soldiers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo announce they have overthrown the Bamako government, saying it has failed to give the armed forces the means to defeat a rebellion by Tuareg rebels in the north. The junta leaders detain President Amadou Toumani Toure and suspend the constitution.
- March 30-31: Tuareg rebels in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) capture a string of key towns, including Kidal and Gao, with previously unknown radical Islamist group Ansar Dine fighting on their flanks.
- April 1: The MNLA says it controls the desert town of Timbuktu, the last major centre in Mali's north remaining under government control.
- April 2: Ansar Dine, along with AQIM, move into Timbuktu.
- April 6: The Tuaregs unilaterally declare the north independent, under the name of Azawad.
- April 12: New interim leader Dioncounda Traore, the former parliament speaker, becomes president.
- May 21: The new leader is attacked and injured in his Bamako office by protesters. He is flown to Paris for treatment.
- June 27: Islamists seize total control of Gao, ousting the Tuaregs after deadly clashes between the once-allied groups.
- June 30: Armed Islamists destroy ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu and threaten to wipe out every "idolatrous'' religious shrine there.
- August 8: Islamists amputate the hand of a thief, in the latest application of Islamic law, which has also seen them stone to death an unmarried couple, whip transgressors and force women to wear veils.
- September 1: In the north, Islamists take control of the town of Douentza, on the de facto boundary with the government-controlled south.
- October 12: The UN Security Council passes a resolution providing for a West African-led international military force aimed at reconquering northern Mali for the government in Bamako.
- November 6: Ansar Dine calls for other fighters to join it in political dialogue and "rejects all forms of extremism and terrorism''.
- November 9: West African ministers meet in Abuja to adopt a plan for their troops to recapture northern Mali.