A military intervention to oust armed Islamists in northern Mali is unlikely before next autumn, the UN peacekeeping chief said Wednesday amid growing calls for a force to deploy quickly.
"Even if there is a consensus to put forward a political solution, it is probable, if not certain, that at the very end there will be a military operation," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told a conference in Paris.
"In any event, nothing can be done until September-October. This is a process in evolution," he said.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, the chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), has said he hoped the intervention could be authorised by the United Nations this month and triggered in the first quarter of 2013.
ECOWAS says it is ready to deploy 3,300 troops to reclaim northern Mali and is waiting for approval from the UN.
Mali was plunged into crisis when troops seized power in a 22 March coup, creating a power vacuum that allowed ethnic Tuareg and Islamist rebels to snatch the large desert north and take over key towns including Timbuktu.
The international community is concerned Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are now free to operate unchecked in the area and could use the huge territory as a base for attacks elsewhere.
On Tuesday, Mali government officials met with two armed groups for the first time in a landmark encounter that saw the rebels pledge to respect the country's territorial integrity and root out "terrorism".