Tens of Thousands Gather for Peace Rally in Maliإقرأ هذا الخبر بالعربية
Up to 60,000 people gathered Sunday for a giant peace rally in Mali, a country split in two after Islamists wrested control of northern desert regions after a March coup in the capital Bamako.
The meeting for "national peace and reconciliation" in Bamako's main stadium was called by the country's top Muslim body and drew several key politicians including Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra.
"Let us pray for Mali, let us pray for peace," urged Mahmoud Dicko, the head of Mali's High Islamic Council, as he addressed a crowd that an Agence France Presse reporter estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000.
Dicko recently met with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of two Islamist groups, along with Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), occupying the north of the country.
The groups -- which security experts say are acting under the aegis of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- seized key northern cities in the chaos following a coup d'etat in Bamako on March 22 that toppled president Amadou Toumani Toure.
The takeover was spearheaded by Tuareg rebels seeking an independent state for their nomadic desert tribe, but the extremists have pushed them aside and seek an Islamic state in the zone, an area larger than France or Texas.
The groups have since imposed strict Islamic law on the population in northern Mali, prompting outrage as they stoned an unmarried couple to death last month and cut off the hand of a thief on Wednesday.
Fighters from Ansar Dine also destroyed part of Timbuktu's cultural treasures -- declaring the ancient Muslim shrines "haram" or forbidden in Islam -- shortly after UNESCO placed them on a list of endangered World Heritage sites.
"Our country needs peace and national healing," said Madani Ousmane Haidara, a prominent imam, at the rally.
"It's up to Malians to find a solution and I ask all Malians to forgive each other," Haidara said.
In Bamako, interim authorities who took over from the junta have stood by helplessly as Islamists have tightened their hold in the north, and are now working to form a stronger unity government on the orders of west African mediators.
The ECOWAS west African regional bloc has 3,300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.
The U.N. Security Council is ready to approve this, but is awaiting a formal request from Bamako as well as more information on the size, means and mandate of the proposed force.