UN chief warns of crisis across Africa's Sahel

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Monday that political turmoil, terrorist activity, drug trafficking and arms smuggling are spilling over borders in Africa's Sahel region and threating peace and security.
The U.N. chief told the Security Council that the crisis in Mali, where Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida now control the north, is part of "a sustained, systemic crisis across the entire Sahel region."
"The warning lights for the Sahel region continue to flash," Ban said. "Extreme climatic conditions and fragile economies only add to this toxic brew of vulnerability."
This year, Ban said, an estimated 18.7 million people in the region don't have enough food and over one million children under the age of five are at risk of acute malnutrition.
The secretary-general said the challenges in Mali can't be addressed effectively unless the international community also confronts challenges affecting the broader region, which also includes Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and southern Algeria.
Romano Prodi, the U.N. envoy for the Sahel, said he is working to organize global support to promote humanitarian aid and long-term development in the region, and to help reunite Mali.
He warned that the Sahel crisis "may spread if not tackled in time."
Prodi stressed that nothing can be done on the humanitarian and development fronts "without restoring the unity of Mali in a peaceful Sahel."
Mali was plunged into turmoil in March after a coup in the capital of Bamako created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, which have now imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
Prodi said what must happen immediately is preparations for "transparent and free democratic elections as soon as possible."
The council meeting, organized by Morocco which holds the presidency this month, again highlighted the huge gap between African nations, who are united in pressing for the speedy deployment of an international force to support the Malian army in retaking the north, and the U.N. chief's call for training international and Malian forces and positive developments on political reconciliation before a green light is given for military action.
Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Charles Koffi Diby, speaking on behalf of the west African regional group ECOWAS, appealed to the Security Council to urgently authorize an international force to oust al-Qaida and hardline extremists from northern Mali, and got strong backing from Morocco's Foreign Minister Saad Dine El Otmani and Togo's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Elliott Ohin.
Prodi stressed that achieving the two main goals for Mali _ political union and the democratic evolution of the country _ are crucial for the long-term agenda in the Sahel and supported the secretary-general's approach to military action.
"We must make every effort to get to our goals ... through peaceful means and negotiations," he said. "An extended military action brings always as a consequence not only a humanitarian tragedy but enormous financial costs and an extended period of economic crisis."
Prodi said all the military experts he has met have said "many months are needed to gather the strength requested for a credible full range campaign."
What must happen immediately, he stressed, is preparations for "transparent and free democratic elections as soon as possible."
The Security Council, in a statement approved by all 15 members, recognized the importance of a comprehensive approach to tackle security, development and humanitarian issues in the Sahel and strongly condemned human rights abuses committed by terrorists and other extremist groups.
The council expressed "grave concern" at the consequences of instability in northern Mali and "the increasing entrenchment in the Sahel of terrorist elements, including Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, affiliated groups and other extremist groups," and the impact on countries of the region and beyond.