Military experts from Africa, the United Nations and Europe have drawn up preliminary plans to recapture northern Mali from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels, African officials said on Tuesday.
A source with knowledge of the plan said it will involve a force of more than 4,000 personnel, mostly from West African countries.
"Every military option will be used — ground and air," the source said, asking not to be named.
The crisis in Mali has become a security concern for Western governments worried its vast desert could turn into a training ground for militants.
Once an example of African democracy, it fell into chaos after a coup in March in the capital Bamako that toppled the president and paved the way for the rebel takeover of the north.
International military experts drew up the plan at a week-long meeting in Bamako and submitted it to the West African regional bloc ECOWAS for approval on Tuesday. The blueprint will then be reviewed by the United Nations Security Council in mid-November, setting the stage for action.
"We need to respond in detail to the Security Council on the logistics, timing, size and funding for the deployment of this mission," Desire Ouedraogo, president of the ECOWAS Commission, told military planners at a ceremony on Tuesday.
"So your conclusions will be crucial in the next step, of getting the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution authorizing deployment."
The Security Council gave African leaders 45 days from 12 October to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake control of the north. Diplomats say that any such operation is months away, however.
While regional and international efforts to deal with the situation have been hobbled by division over how far to proceed with negotiations with the rebels, a consensus is building that an intervention is inevitable.
Representatives from the Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine are pursuing talks with regional mediator Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso. Ansar Dine has also sent delegates for talks with regional power Algeria in an apparent effort to head off an intervention.
The official present at the planning meetings said a military headquarters for the mission would be set up in Koulikoro, about 60 km from Bamako.
US-based risk consultancy Stratfor said an intervention would likely drive Al-Qaeda-linked fighters out of their strongholds — Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal — and into the mountain ranges of Mali and Niger where their influence could be contained.
Former colonial power France has been a vocal backer of military action. The United States, which spent years working with the Malian army against Al-Qaeda's Sahara wing, has called for a more cautious approach, seeking elections first to strengthen the political leadership.