Mali crisis dominates AU summit

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African leaders met in the Ethiopian capital Sunday for talks dominated by the conflict in Mali as well as lingering territorial issues between the two Sudans.

The African Union says it will deploy a force in Mali, where French troops are helping the Malian army to push back Islamist extremists whose rebellion threatens to divide the West African nation.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is attending the two-day summit in Addis Ababa.

With Mali at the top of the agenda, African leaders hope they can make quick progress in deploying a substantial number of African troops there. As the African leaders met, French Special Forces fighting alongside Malian troops were pushing farther north into the Malian desert in an offensive against al Qaida-linked Islamists who took control of northern Mali more than nine months ago.

Residents of Timbuktu who fled the fabled city after French air raids on Islamists occupying the centuries-old spiritual capital of Muslims in Africa are gearing to return, saying "liberation" is near.

Descending on the central Mali town of Mopti, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Timbuktu, they are overjoyed by the stunning offensive against the Al Qaeda-linked Islamists which has seen six towns recaptured in 17 days.

"We have the feeling that we are soon going to be liberated," said Sidi Toure, a 67-year-old trader, who arrived in this town on the Niger river by boat.

"I live in Timbuktu and I am very happy with French President Francois Hollande," he said.

Timbuktu is a labyrinth of giant earthen mosques and shrines and was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1998. It has long been a tourist magnet and also attracted Islamic scholars, drawn by its rich collection of religious texts.

A number of African countries have pledged to send troops to Mali, and on Tuesday the African Union will hold a conference of donors with hopes that money will be raised for the Mali force. The Peace and Security Council of the African Union urged member states to "seize the opportunity of the donors' conference ... to meaningfully contribute toward the mobilization of the necessary resources."

The council also urged the international community to contribute generously to the Mali force.

Africa's economic boom is threatened by violent conflicts across the continent, African Union officials said at the summit.

"While we are proud of the progress made in expanding and consolidating peace and security on the continent, we also acknowledge that much still needs to be done to resolve ongoing, renewed and new conflict situations in a number of countries," said African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Dlamini-Zuma said the Peace and Security Council of the African Union will report to the summit on efforts to resolve conflicts in countries ranging from Mali to Madagascar.