African leaders meet in Benin for security talks

African leaders gathered Saturday for talks on insecurity in the Sahel region where fresh violence in northern Mali has sparked what rights groups say is the area’s worst human rights crisis in 20 years.

As many as 25 heads of states were expected at the meeting in the small West African country of Benin.

“Many subjects will be discussed. We have many problems at the moment — be it the situation in northern Mali, in Sudan, be it elections here and there, with the risk in the Sahel,” African Union (AU) commission chief Jean Ping told reporters on arrival in Cotonou late Friday.

Benin’s Foreign Minister Nassirou Arifari Bako told AFP the talks were aimed at “harmonising the views of the heads of states on the current challenges and crises on the continent”.

This would be the first AU meeting convened by Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi, who took over the helm of the continental body last month.

Ivory Coast leader and newly appointed head of West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS, Alassane Ouattara, told reporters on arrival in Cotonou that the AU “must deal with the crises on the continent.”

Amnesty International has said that a Tuareg offensive raging in northern Mali has sparked “the worst human rights crisis” in the area in 20 years.

Scores have been killed and thousands have fled into neighbouring countries since the rebels launched their offensive last month.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said Friday fighting had displaced at least 60,000 people inside Mali, while more than 44,000 others had fled to neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger according to the UN refugee agency.

Tuareg rebels, boosted by the return of those who had been fighting for Moamer Kadhafi in Libya, launched an offensive on January 17 and have attacked several northern towns as they demand autonomy for their nomadic desert tribe.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Friday voiced “deep concern” at the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in the Sahel region that stretches across Africa south of the Sahara.

ECOWAS called for an “immediate and unconditional” cessation of hostilities by the rebels, while also urging a peaceful end to the conflict through dialogue.

Other leaders already in Benin for the talks are Jacob Zuma of South Africa; Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria; Denis Sassou Nguesso of Congo; Idriss Deby Itno of Chad and Faure Gnassinge of Togo.

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and the Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also arrived for the talks.AFP

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