The African Union has endorsed a plan to set up a regional task force of 7,500 to fight Boko Haram militants, a senior official said on Thursday, in a key step towards securing UN Security Council backing.
Neighbours Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad and Benin agreed earlier this month to call on the African Union (AU) to seek UN Security Council support for their plan to take on the Islamist insurgents, who are fighting to create a hardline Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
"We are thinking of a force of 7,500 women and men. The next step is to submit (approval) to the UN Security Council," Smail Chergui, the commissioner of the AU's Peace and Security Council, told reporters on the sidelines of a summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital.
Boko Haram has made incursions into neighbouring Cameroon and threatens the stability of a region that includes Niger and Chad. More than 13,000 people have been killed and more than one million made homeless by Boko Haram violence since 2009.
"Boko Haram's horrendous abuses, unspeakable cruelty, total disregard for human lives, and wanton destruction of property are unmatched," AU Commission Chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said in a statement ahead of a full AU summit meeting on Friday.
"The continued attacks in northeastern Nigeria and the increasing attacks in the Lake Chad Basin, along the border with Chad and Cameroon, and in the northern provinces of that country, have the potential of destabilising the entire region, with far-reaching security and humanitarian consequences," Dlamini-Zuma added.
'No efforts should be spared'
Regional nations pledged earlier this month to commit a battalion each to the force, a total of some 3,000 troops, but Dlamini-Zuma said after meetings Thursday it was decided that "no efforts should be spared" to defeat the fighters.
Chad's President Idriss Deby, who earlier this month sent a convoy of troops and 400 military vehicles into neighbouring Cameroon to help fight Boko Haram, said action had to be taken.
"We have seen too many meetings and no concrete action," Deby said. "Today, there are four countries affected by Boko Haram, but tomorrow it may be a continental problem."
Nigeria has the largest army in west Africa but has come under criticism at home and abroad for failing to stop the advance of Boko Haram. Tensions with its neighbours have so far hindered attempts at coordinated action.
Earlier this month Nigerian security officials ruled out the need for a United Nations or African Union-backed force to fight Boko Haram, saying the country and its partners could handle the threat.
But international pressure has ramped up, with a top US military commander General David Rodriguez, head of US Africa Command, warning this week that tackling Boko Haram will need a "huge" international effort.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)