ADDIS ABABA The African Union gave its backing to a plan on Tuesday to send troops to push rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants out of northern Mali, clearing a hurdle for the strategy that now needs United Nations approval.
Mali, once seen as a model of democracy in Africa, descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that led to Islamist fighters, seizing two-thirds of the country.
West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS agreed on Sunday to send 3,300 troops to help Mali's government regain control, with most of the soldiers coming from Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Mali's former colonial ruler France has called for swift action in Mali, concerned al Qaeda's north African arm AQIM could use its growing presence there to launch attacks on French soil.
But support for a military push is not universal - regional powerhouse Algeria says it prefers a negotiated solution.
After the AU endorsed the plan, the bloc's Peace and Security Council Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said countries from other parts of Africa would be able to send troops and logistical support.
"This deployment aims to respond to the request by the Malian authorities to regain the occupied regions in the north of the country, dismantle the terrorist and criminal networks and restore effectively the authority of the state over the entire national territory," he told reporters in Addis Ababa.
ECOWAS' plan covers a six-month period, with a preparatory phase for training and the establishment of bases in Mali's south, followed by combat operations in the north, Malian army sources told Reuters.
Lamamra said the AU urged the U.N. Security Council to give its full support to the plan and authorise an initial period of one year for a planned deployment under Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter.
Chapter 7 allows the 15-member council to authorise sanctions ranging to from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
The U.N. Security Council gave African leaders 45 days from October 12 to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake the north, but diplomats say any such operation is months away.
"I think that a (U.N. resolution before the new year) is the aim for all of us," Lamamra said.
(Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Andrew Heavens)