Mali and a West African regional bloc preparing to send troops to help Bamako reclaim the Islamist-seized north reached a partial agreement Sunday over conditions for an eventual deployment, officials said.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been jostling for weeks seeking an end to the Malian crisis, which has raised concerns about regional stability and seen Mali split in two after Islamist extremists seized control of the north after a March coup.
ECOWAS has 3,300 regional troops on standby but wants UN approval and has been awaiting the go-ahead from Mali, which is worried about foreign troops flooding into the capital Bamako and only wants the fighters to provide a supporting role.
But on Sunday, Malian Defence Minister Yamoussa Camara said Mali is now prepared for ECOWAS troops to be based in Bamako. The move is significant because interim President Dioncounda Traore had previously been firmly opposed to foreign troops being stationed there.
"Mali is currently in line with ECOWAS, after several clarifications," Camara said, adding that "the (ECOWAS) headquarters would be in Bamako."
Camara was speaking alongside his counterpart Paul Koffi Koffi from the Ivory Coast, which currently chairs ECOWAS.
"We must welcome the agreement that we have just reached with our Malian brothers. Today, we can say that Mali and ECOWAS are on the same page for troop operations on Malian territory," Koffi Koffi said.
ECOWAS is still awaiting UN Security Council approval for an intervention.
On Friday, the Security Council called for West African nations to produce a "feasible and actionable" military plan to retake northern Mali from Islamist militants.
Mali was considered one of the region's stable democracies until it was plunged into turmoil in the coup. Extremists allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) swiftly seized key towns in the huge arid north, an area larger than France or Texas, and have implemented hardline sharia law.
In Timbuktu, women are arrested if they are seen in public without a veil, and elsewhere an unmarried couple has been stoned to death, cigarette smokers flogged and suspected thieves subjected to amputations.
Islamists have also destroyed several ancient Muslim shrines they considered idolatrous.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recently condemned the "serious human rights violations and possibly war crimes" going on in north Mali.
An international Sahel conference presided by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is to meet on the crisis in New York on Wednesday.