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Plans for Mali force still unclear: US

A video grab reportedly showing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters preparing for war in Mali on January 9, 2013
This photo of a video grab provided by the SITE Monitoring Service on January 10, 2013 and posted on jihadist forums by a group calling itself "al-Sahara Media Foundation" reportedly shows al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters preparing for war in nort

Plans to send an African-led force into northern Mali to root out Islamist rebels, now trying to push further south on a new offensive, still need to be refined, a US official said Thursday.

The lack of clarity and wrangling over funding the force proposed by the regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is hampering preparations, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

"Look, we've considered this situation in Mali urgent for a number of months now, and we are eager to see the swiftest possible implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2085," Nuland told journalists.

"That requires a number of steps. We need to come to closure on the funding mechanism. We need to have more clarity, as we are waiting on, from ECOWAS with regard to its concept of operation for this force."

Resolution 2085 adopted in late December authorized the deployment of an African-led mission in Mali for one year.

Islamist fighters have controlled northern Mali for months, after making rapid advances following a coup in March, and on Thursday they seized a government town in the country's center, vowing to push further south.

Abdou Dardar, from the Ansar Dine group, told AFP that fighters from the Islamist force were in the town of Konna, northeast of the regional capital of Mopti, and witnesses later in the day said Malian soldiers were retreating.

The new clashes reinforced the need for a planned European Union training mission to support Bamako's troops, the EU's head of foreign affairs Catherine Ashton said.

Planning for an EU mission to train Mali government forces so they could push out the rebels remained on course and the latest clashes "only increased the need and urgency to act," she said.

But there seems to be an issue too about exactly which countries in the region could contribute to the force.

"There are a number of African countries that are tied down in other peacekeeping missions. This is also tied to the funding mechanism," Nuland said.

"Countries that are going to contribute need to know that they're going to be supported over the long term."