Malians opposing a foreign military intervention to retake Mali's Islamist-held north march in the streets of the capital, Bamako, Mali on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 (Photo: AP)
African and European leaders will meet in Bamako on Friday to work on the logistics of reconquering Mali's desert north from armed Islamists.
The summit comes a week after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution giving West African nations 45 days to lay out details for a military intervention.
The vast region the size of France fell under control of radical Islamist groups in the chaos that followed a March coup in the country that was once considered one of Africa's most stable democracies.
Concerned that the area could become the same type of haven for Al-Qaeda Islamists that Afghanistan was a decade ago, Mali's neighbours and the West are keen to drive the radicals out.
In the months that they have been in control of the region, the Islamists have imposed their version of sharia law, arresting unveiled women, stoning to death unmarried couples and amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, according to residents and rights groups.
They have also destroyed ancient Muslim shrines that have been revered for centuries and are classified as World Heritage Sites, but which the radicals consider blasphemous.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has said that it could send up to 3,000 troops to recapture the area.
Among those expected at Friday's meeting are new African Union commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore.
The number-two EU diplomat Pierre Vimont, France's envoy to the Sahel Jean Felix-Paganon, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's special envoy for the region, former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, will also take part.
Representatives from ECOWAS countries, who are the only ones expected to send troops into Mali, will begin laying out their strategy for recapturing the vast desert area, according to Western diplomatic sources.
They will set out their military needs and take note of what ammunition and ground troops Mali has available.
"It has to be very well thought-out, otherwise the Security Council won't be on board if it deems the plan to be flawed," said one diplomatic source.
Underlining the importance of the meeting, Malian presidential advisor Moussa Diakite told AFP "it will be for us, Malians, and for our partners from the international community an opportunity to agree upon a plan to kick out the terrorists."
France's defence minister, who has in the past called the Islamist-occupied north "a terrorist sanctuary", warned the international community was serious about driving out the radicals.
"I hope the jihadists and those who support them will become aware that we cannot accept that this goes on," Jean-Yves Le Drian told journalists in France on Thursday.
France has pledged logistical support to the Mali military intervention.
On Thursday, Guinea said it was ready to deliver to Mali weapons purchased by the regime of president Amadou Toumani Toure before he was overthrown in March. ECOWAS has blocked delivery since late July. Guinea said it wanted to make sure the weapons fell into the right hands in Mali.
Friday's meeting will also discuss the possibility of negotiation with some of the armed groups controlling the north.
"What we don't want is to hold dialogue with the people who have shown themselves capable of carrying out amputations" and the other actions committed in the name of sharia law, a French source said.
"Negotiations are under way, but he who wants peace has to prepare for war," a Bamako-based African diplomat added.
On the ground, rebels from the Al-Qaeda-allied group Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) on Thursday used pickaxes and other tools to destroy Muslim saints' tombs in the ancient city of Timbuktu, their latest attack on the fabled city's cultural treasures.