African leaders pose for a group photograph with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (1st row, 5th R) during the 20th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Governments at the African Union (AU) headquarters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa January 27, 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Addis Ababa - The African Union pledged funds and military backing for war-torn Mali Monday, as UN leader Ban Ki-moon warned on the eve of a major donor conference there was a “moral imperative” to provide support.

Ban, speaking at the 54-member AU's summit meeting, which has been dominated by Mali's struggle against Islamist forces, said he was “determined to help the people of Mali at this critical hour.”

“This is a moral imperative for the entire international community,” he told reporters.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra said the African-led force for Mali (AFISMA) will cost $460 million, with the AU promising to contribute an “unprecedented” $50 million for the mission and Mali's army.

“For the first time in the history of the African Union the budget will be used to support a peace operation,” Lamamra added.

A woeful lack of cash and logistical resources has hampered the AFISMA force, set up by the west African bloc ECOWAS to support Malian troops against Islamist forces who seized swathes of the arid north after a coup last year.

So far, just 2,000 African troops have been sent to Mali or neighbouring Niger, with the bulk of the fighting borne by some 2,500 French troops, who launched a military intervention on January 11.

Mali has topped the agenda of the meeting of African leaders at their two-day AU summit, which opened Sunday at AU headquarters, with several presidents to stay on for the donor conference on Tuesday.

However, there is no clear figure for how much the conference is aiming to raise, although diplomats had suggested some $700 million will be needed for AFISMA and the Malian army, in addition to heavy humanitarian costs.

On Sunday, outgoing AU chairman Thomas Boni Yayi, the president of Benin, told fellow leaders their response to the conflict in Mali had been too slow, and thanked France, the country's former colonial ruler, for its military intervention.

France's action, launched after Islamists seized a central town and threatened to advance on the capital, was something “we should have done a long time ago to defend a member country”, he said.

An AU draft document called on member states to “make generous financial and logistical contributions... for AFISMA and the Malian armed forces in a spirit of pan-African solidarity and shared responsibility.”

The AU has said it wants to bolster the strength of the force, and on Friday gave member states one week to commit troops to the mission.

EU commissioner for development Andris Piebalgs told AFP the EU would commit 50 million euros ($67 million) for Mali, speaking optimistically about Tuesday's conference.

“I think there is a pretty good chance all the costs will be covered,” he told AFP.

Japan has promised at least $100 million, expected to be largely for humanitarian assistance and social development, according to a senior Japanese diplomat.

Although Mali has dominated the AU's bi-annual talks, the failure to sign a proposed peace deal for the troubled eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has also overshadowed the meeting.

The agreement was aimed at ending recurrent unrest in eastern DR Congo, where M23 rebels, who briefly seized the key mining hub city of Goma last year, still control swathes of mineral-rich territory.

A ceremony for eight regional leaders to sign the deal was cancelled Monday, although Ban has insisted the nations have “no fundamental differences or objections to the content of the agreement”.

The presidents of Rwanda and Uganda Ä which UN experts have accused of backing the M23, a charge both governments deny Ä as well as DR Congo, Angola, Burundi, Republic of Congo, South Africa and Tanzania had been expected to sign the deal.

A regional security source told AFP that the signing fell through because members of the southern African bloc SADC “felt they had not been sufficiently consulted” on the agreement.

However, a senior UN official told AFP it was hoped the signing of the framework agreement would take place “in the next 10 days or so”. - Sapa-AFP