UNITED NATIONS - West Africa's regional body is gearing up for a tough fight to help Mali's government forces reclaim the north of the country from Islamist militants, telling the UN Security Council on Monday it needs major combat assets, including fighter jets.

Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country. But Islamist groups, some allied with al-Qaida, then hijacked the rebellion in the north to impose sharia law.

Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, earlier this month made a formal request to the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for military assistance to help free the country's north.

Security Council diplomats have privately expressed skepticism about ECOWAS' current plans, saying the West Africans need a more detailed strategy if any future military intervention in Mali is to succeed.

ECOWAS has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, including the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

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