* Northern territories occupied by Islamist fighters
* Former military junta rejects foreign troop deployment
ABIDJAN, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Mali’s interim leader has made a formal request to West African regional body ECOWAS for military assistance to help free the country’s north, which has been occupied since April by Islamist fighters, a senior Malian official said on Wednesday.
Leaders of an influential former military junta, however, immediately rejected the possible deployment of foreign troops on Malian soil.
“Mali is in danger, and that danger is a cross-border danger. Its management goes beyond the capacity of the Malian state,” said Baba Berthe, a senior official under Mali’s President Diancounde Traore.
Berthe transmitted the request to Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara, who chairs the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), during a meeting in that country’s commercial capital Abidjan.
“The response must be a cross-border response. So President Traore sent me here to ask for the support of the sub-region, of ECOWAS, of Ivory Coast to manage this problem in relation with the African Union and the United Nations,” he said.
Berthe gave few details regarding the contents of the request, and said Malian authorities would continue to pursue negotiations with the Islamists. He said Malian and regional military experts would examine the requirements for a mission to recapture territory in the north, if those talks failed.
A statement released by Ouattara following the meeting said Mali had requested assistance to secure the institutions of its transitional government, reorganise its army and security forces, and restore territorial integrity. However, its government asked that a liaison detachment, and not armed troops or police, be deployed to the government-controlled south.
Ouattara said he would consult with other regional leaders to respond to the request.
ECOWAS has said it is ready to send about 3,000 troops to Mali to help take back the north. West African leaders have been waiting for a formal request from Malian authorities, which will enable the bloc and the African Union to seek a United Nations Security Council mandate for a military deployment.
In June, the Security Council asked the African Union and ECOWAS to explain more precisely what kind of resolution they wanted.
Once considered a shining example of African democracy, Mali was plunged into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels from the north to seize nearly two thirds of the country.
The Tuareg rebellion has since been hijacked by Islamist militants who have began imposing sharia law in the three northern regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu now under their control.
Under international pressure, the military junta later handed back power to a civilian authority headed by President Traore. However, its leaders have remained influential and command some popular support, particularly in the riverside capital, Bamako.
They have remained hostile to the idea of a deployment of ECOWAS soldiers in the country.
“Our reaction is clear. We agree to logistical and air support and air strikes, but ground troops are out of the question,” said Bakary Mariko, spokesman for former junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo.