Preparations are accelerating for an intervention in Islamist-occupied northern Mali as West African leaders prepare to adopt a military blueprint this weekend before seeking UN approval.
Facing a potentially violent ouster, one of the extremist groups, Ansar Dine, which has occupied key cities such as Timbuktu for seven months, has called for dialogue and a halt to hostilities.
However plans for military action have not slowed.
Ex-Guinean transitional leader General Sekouba Konate, who is supervising preparation, met chief regional mediator Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore Thursday to discuss "the juxtaposition of the military intervention and the ongoing dialogue," a source in the president's office told AFP.
While some have presented the military intervention as a fait accompli, divisions still remain on whether it is the best solution.
The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said Thursday it was "a last resort" after talks with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Algeria, with its superior military capabilities and its 1,400-kilometre (875-mile) border with Mali, is seen as key to any military operation but it favours a negotiated solution instead.
"We still have the chance to work for peace," Prodi was quoted as saying by the APS news agency.
Ansar Dine spokesman Mohamed Ag Aharid on Wednesday warned in Ouagadougou that any military intervention in Mali would "set the region ablaze."
As both war and dialogue remain on the table, the Red Cross said in Geneva Thursday that some 500,000 people could no longer sustain themselves in north Mali amid security risks, food shortages and the breakdown of political structures.
Once the military blueprint is approved by leaders from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), meeting in Abuja on Sunday, a statement said, it "will then be transmitted through the African Union, before November 15, to the UN Security Council."
The Security Council on October 12 approved a resolution urging ECOWAS to speed up preparations for a military intervention to help recapture northern Mali.
The council -- which asked for clarification on the composition of the proposed force as well as financial and military means -- is expected to give the green light for the deployment of troops once it has studied the plan.
Arrest of alleged jihadist from France --
The military strategy was drawn up with the help of experts from the European Union, AU, UN and the region and adopted by ECOWAS army chiefs on Tuesday.
The details of the plan have not been made public, but army sources say over 4,000 troops could be sent into Mali.
In Paris, the French Defence Ministry said foreign and defence ministers from five European countries -- Germany, Poland, Spain, Italy and France -- will meet on November 15 to discuss a European mission aimed at training Malian troops.
The mission could include 200 soldiers and begin in January, an aide of French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
Mali, once one of the region's most stable democracies, rapidly imploded after a coup 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.