DAKAR, Senegal Military action will be needed to push radical Islamists out of northern Mali where they have carried out amputations and public whippings since seizing control of the region earlier this year, a top U.S. official said.
Johnnie Carson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told reporters that Mali must also establish a "strong, credible government" so that its military is capable of leading the effort to liberate the north.
Al Qaeda-linked militants took advantage of a power vacuum in the distant capital back in March when mutinous soldiers overthrew the democratically elected government.
The United States has expressed growing concern about the situation in northern Mali. At last week's United Nations General Assembly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was using Mali as a safe haven to launch attacks in neighboring countries as it tries to undermine democratic transitions underway in North Africa.
Al Qaeda's North Africa affiliate is believed to have ties to Ansar al Sharia, one of several militant groups mentioned as suspects in last month's attack at a U.S. Consulate in Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. But as CBS News senior correspondent John Miller notes, blurred lines between groups make pinpointing a specific party as the one responsible difficult.
On Tuesday, the White House responded to a Washington Post report that the United States was holding "a series of secret meetings" on what threat al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb poses.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise that the White House holds meetings on a variety of subjects, including a number of counterterrorism issues," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an email. "The president has been clear about his goal to destroy al Qaida's network and we work toward that goal every day. We aren't going to get into the specifics of any of these discussions or policy prescriptions."
Both the Post and the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. was weighing unilateral strikes against the group, including the use of armed, unmanned drones.
Over the last six months, the militants have begun imposing their form of strict Islamic law known as shariah.
"They are responsible for terrorism, for kidnapping, and for robbery. This is an issue that must be dealt with through security and military means," Carson said during a teleconference Monday.
"But any military action up there must indeed be well planned, well organized, well resourced, and well thought through," he added. "And it must, in fact, be agreed upon by those who are going to be most affected by it."
For months, the West African regional bloc known as ECOWAS has been calling for military intervention to help Malian forces retake the north from the Islamists.
Mali's transitional government has accepted the presence of a regional military force, though for long officials wavered on whether they wanted boots on the ground in southern Mali as well.
Carson said Monday that other countries such as Algeria, Mauritania and Chad also need to be involved in finding a solution to the Malian crisis, along with the United States, the European Union and others.
"It is important that what goes on up there have the support of all of the states in the region," he said. "The ECOWAS states, as well as Mauritania and Algeria and others in the area, must also be a part of this policy. After all, the states in the north have long borders with Mali."
The north of Mali, a predominantly moderate Muslim country, has become increasingly repressive in recent months, according to human rights groups. Islamists even stoned to death a couple accused of adultery.
They have banned ring tones on mobile phones that are not Koranic verse readings, and prohibited cigarettes and alcohol. Women who wear jewelry or perfume, or fail to cover their heads can also face punishment.