* U.N. holds special session on West African nation
* Mali fell into chaos after military coup toppled president
* France, some other nations support military intervention
* U.S. says Mali first needs a legitimate government
By John Irish
UNITED NATIONS, Sept 26 U.N. members appeared
deeply divided on Wednesday as they sought to resolve the crisis
in Mali, with France and some of Mali's neighbors backing
possible military intervention while the United States said the
West African nation first must have an elected government.
A special U.N. session on Mali, held on the sidelines of the
annual General Assembly, was intended to devise a plan for a
nation that descended into chaos in March after a military coup
toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled local
Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country.
Islamist groups have since hijacked the rebellion in the
north, imposing strict Islamic law in regions under their
control and spurring fears that religious extremist fighters
could further destabilize the region.
Islamist groups including the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine
have carried out public whippings of alleged adulterers and
destroyed UNESCO-listed shrines of local saints in the ancient
town of Timbuktu, arguing such worship was un-Islamic.
France, Mali's former colonial power, on Wednesday called
for the U.N. Security Council to adopt as soon as possible a
resolution enabling military intervention in northern Mali, a
call that has been supported by some West African nations that
fear Mali's chaos will spread beyond its borders.
French President Francois Hollande warned that Mali's
territorial integrity should be restored as soon as possible and
that any lost time would only complicate matters.
He said he wanted a resolution on Mali to be approved within
weeks. France has ruled out intervening directly, but has
promised logistical and intelligence support.
Hollande's calls were echoed by some of Mali's neighbors,
including Niger, whose foreign minister, Mohammed Bazoum, told
delegates that only an armed intervention supported by friendly
powers could eradicate insecurity in the region.
'A POWDER KEG'
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled
caution, saying that immediate efforts should concentrate on
putting a legitimate government back in power in Mali before its
internal divisions are addressed.
"This is not only a humanitarian crisis; it is a powder keg
that the international community cannot afford to ignore,"
Clinton said in her remarks.
"In the end, only a democratically elected government will
have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement
in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of
law," Clinton added.
The fragile interim government that now holds Mali's capital
Bamako requested a U.N. Security Council resolution earlier this
month, and the West African regional body ECOWAS has said it
would be ready to send in troops.
But diplomats say the Security Council remains unlikely to
provide a mandate for military intervention until ECOWAS
outlines a more detailed strategy, including troop numbers and
costs of the operation.
The Mali conflict has exacerbated a deteriorating
humanitarian and security situation in the turbulent Sahel
region - a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's
poorest countries on the rim of the Sahara - where drought has
pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
African Union Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra told
Reuters on Tuesday that Mali's interim leaders - president,
prime minister and junta leader - are capable of managing the
crisis and need full international backing.
"How can we organize elections when northern Mali is
occupied by terrorist movements that don't apply democracy?"
Hollande said when asked if elections should be held first.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautions that any
military action could have serious humanitarian consequences.
More than 400,000 people already have been forced to flee their
Ban said the United Nations is developing a strategy on the
Sahel that would look as a whole at issues including security,
response to large-scale crises, and the promotion of democratic
governance. Ban said he would appoint an envoy to manage the
process, but did not name the person.
On July 5, the Security Council endorsed political efforts
by the 15-nation ECOWAS - the Economic Community of West African
States - to end the unrest in Mali, but stopped short of backing
military intervention there.