“The first step is clearly to push for unity in the Malian Government,” the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York.“The existing divisions, the past divisions, the history that we had and the present difficult relations are certainly obstacles to preserving the unity and solidarity of the country,” he added.The instability and insecurity resulting from the renewed clashes, as well as the proliferation of armed groups in the region, drought and political instability in the wake of a military coup d’état in March, have led over 250,000 Malians to flee to neighbouring countries, with 174,000 Malians estimated to be internally displaced.“The second goal is clearly to preserve and guarantee the unity of a country that is now divided,” said the former Italian prime minister, noting that the current split of the country is “unnatural.” This is the first visit to New York for Mr. Prodi since his appointment in early October. In addition to meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday, the envoy held a range of consultations that will help him to move forward with his mandate, which is focused on the development and implementation of a UN regional strategy on the crisis affecting the Sahel as a whole. This included meetings with the Secretariat officials, Member States of the Sahel region, as well as with Security Council members and other delegations interested and active on the issue.The western part of the Sahel region, which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, and includes Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and parts of Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria, is currently facing a swathe of problems, which are not only political but also involve security, humanitarian resilience and human rights.In addition to political instability in Mali, the region suffers from extreme poverty, with human development levels among the lowest in the world, porous borders that present significant security challenges, as well as human rights problems.Added to that is the humanitarian crisis affecting the region this year, in which over 18 million people are estimated to be at risk of food insecurity and over one million children risk severe acute malnutrition.Since his appointment, Mr. Prodi has travelled to a number of cities for meetings with government officials, including in the Malian capital, Bamako, as well as in Ethiopia, Egypt and Algeria. He is scheduled to travel to Morocco next week. He stated that his mission is not only focused on the security situation in Mali but also on humanitarian aid and development issues, noting that there can be no solution to the crisis in Mali without addressing these two dimensions. Last month, in a unanimously adopted resolution, the Security Council indicated that it could consider endorsing an international military force to restore the unity of Mali. The 15-member body called on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to support the Malian political process and provide, at once, military and security planners to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and other partners, to help frame a response to a request by Mali’s Transitional Authorities for such a force, and to report back within 45 days.Upon receipt of the report, and acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Council said it was ready “to respond to the request of the Transitional authorities of Mali regarding an international military force assisting the Malian Armed Forces in recovering the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”Chapter VII of the Charter allows the Council to use force in the face of a threat to peace or aggression, taking “such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security,” including blockades and other operations by the forces of Member States.