File photo - Islamist Mujao fighters.

Bamako - Mali's embattled authorities have formally requested African military intervention to oust Islamic extremists from the country's north after months of toying with the option

With a vast area of the country's north occupied by Islamic extremists who have enforced strict sharia law, army sources earlier told AFP they preferred to rely first on their own troops to chase out the jihadists.

Bamako has yet to confirm the request for west African forces to intervene in northern Mali, which was announced on Tuesday by France's special representative for the Sahel region Jean Felix-Paganon in Burkina Faso.

“President (Dioncounda) Traore formally sent a request to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to provide a military contribution to stabilise the country and especially reconquer the north,” Felix-Paganon said.

“This is an important development and we are discussing the possible developments” with Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, ECOWAS's chief mediator, he added.

The formal request for the deployment of some 3,300 ECOWAS troops comes over four months after the regional bloc first declared its willingness to send a force to secure the interim government and combat rebels in the north.

A Malian official speaking on condition of anonymity said that the secretary general of the Malian presidency, Baba Bethe, visited Abidjan on Tuesday to deliver a message to Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara.

Ouattara is the current holder of the rotating presidency of ECOWAS. No details were available on the contents of the message.

A coalition of Malian political parties on Wednesday praised the government's purported request for regional troops to help win back the Islamist-occupied north, urging them to act fast.

The United Front for the Defence of the Republic and Democracy (FDR) which unites some 40 political parties who rallied together after a March 22 coup, said it was among the “first to rejoice this decision”.

“We think one must act fast to free the north of the country. The Malian people must remain united behind this decision,” said Iba Ndiaye, one of the leaders of the coalition.

ECOWAS offered the troops to Mali in late April, a month after the coup which took place in the midst of a Tuareg rebellion for independence in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.

The country was considered one of the region's stable democracies until the coup plunged it into turmoil.

The putsch only opened the way for the rebels to seize the region, but Islamic extremists allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who piggy-backed on their rebellion have since chased out the Tuareg and asserted firm control.

In the vast desert region, which is larger than France or Texas, they have imposed strict sharia law, whipping and stoning transgressors and destroying “idolatrous” ancient World Heritage sites in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Interim authorities have so far been unable to stem the crisis and on Saturday, a jihadist group seized a position farther south, capturing the town of Douentza in the central Mopti region, on the frontier of the government-held zone.

Bamako has been hesitant to accept the offer of military intervention Äan action which has not been clearly defined and still awaits a mandate from the United Nations Ä and insistent that its own army will take the lead.

“It will first be Malian troops who are present. No one will fight this war in the place of Mali, but others will come as support, especially in aviation and logistics,” army chief Colonel-Major Ibrahima Dembele said on August 14.

ECOWAS and others have also attempted to negotiate with the Islamists, with no clear progress made.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Lalliot said in Paris Wednesday that the request was “an indispensable step to envisage international support”, without giving details on any possible French contribution. - Sapa-AFP