West African leaders set for Mali talks ahead of vote

West African leaders gathered Wednesday for a summit that will include talks on Mali, with the divided nation set for presidential polls after French forces intervened to push out Islamist rebels.

The regular summit of the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States was scheduled to start at 1400 GMT in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

The two-day gathering was also to include discussions on Guinea-Bissau, which will hold elections in November following a coup last year.

Mali's first-round presidential election on July 28 is being keenly watched, with the vote seen as crucial to reuniting the deeply divided country.

The vote comes after an 18-month political crisis that saw French forces intervene in January to push out Islamist rebels who had seized the north.

A March 2012 coup toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.

A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 west African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security during and after the elections, and will grow to 11,200 troops, plus 1,400 police, by the end of the year.

The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako, from their northern strongholds.

Mali's election commission has expressed doubts it will be ready to hold the vote on July 28, with some 500,000 people still displaced after the conflict, and many observers have raised concerns over the security challenges in the conflict-scarred vast desert north.

However, France plans to have just 1,000 troops on the ground before the end of 2013 and has been pushing for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order to the country, under the control of an interim government since the coup.

In Guinea-Bissau, presidential and parliamentary elections have been scheduled for November 24, with ECOWAS nations having deployed some 750 troops to the country to provide security.

The country has been plagued by chronic instability, and South American drug cartels have turned it into a hub of cocaine trafficking for west Africa.

There has been a series of military coups, with the latest the overthrow of the regime of former premier Carlos Gomes Junior in April 2012.