West African leaders at an emergency summit have agreed on a 3300-strong force to wrest control of northern Mali from Islamist extremists as fears grow over risks they pose to the region and beyond.
The summit in the Nigerian capital Abuja was aimed at setting out a blueprint for military force in Mali's north that would be transferred to the UN Security Council via the African Union.
Leaders from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States stressed that dialogue remained the preferred route to resolve the crisis in Mali's north, but said force may indeed by necessary given the extremist threat there.
African nations and the international community have expressed growing concerns over a continued occupation of Mali's north since it could provide a safe haven to al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups and criminal gangs.
"We foresee 3300 soldiers for a timeframe of one year," Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the current ECOWAS chairman, told journalists after the summit on Sunday.
The troops would come primarily from ECOWAS, but possibly from countries outside the bloc as well, he said.
Discussions also involved the potential training of 5000 Malian troops, according to Ouattara.
Ouattara said he hoped UN Security Council approval could come in late November or early December, which would allow the force to be put in place days afterward.
"We have countries that are offering battalions, others companies," he said.
ECOWAS countries he named were Nigeria, Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Togo.
From outside of ECOWAS, "Chad could also participate. We have had contacts with other countries - Mauritania, South Africa."
The summit's final communique stressed that dialogue remained "the preferred option in the resolution of the political crisis in Mali".
"However, regarding the security situation, recourse to force may be indispensable in order to dismantle terrorist and transnational criminal networks that pose a threat to international peace and security," it said.
Mali rapidly imploded after a coup in Bamako 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, meting out punishments including stonings and destroying World Heritage shrines.