The U.N. envoy to the troubled Sahel region on Tuesday ruled out an international military option in Mali before next summer, saying everything should be done to avoid war.
European leaders are growing increasingly anxious that Mali could turn into a platform for militant attacks, including in Europe.
African leaders put the finishing touches to an international intervention plan to retake Mali's north from a patchwork of armed groups, some of them linked to al Qaeda.
France, Spain, Italy and Belgium have indicated willingness to take part in the mission, an EU official said.
But Romano Prodi, recently appointed envoy, played down the idea of imminent action during a trip to Rabat, a Moroccan foreign ministry official said.
"He said that military action in north Mali will not be possible before September or October next year," said the official, who asked not to be named.
"In his view, military action needs preparation, everything must be done for peace and to avoid war."
West African leaders will this month seek a U.N. mandate to dispatch a mainly West African force of some 4,000 to Mali tasked with rebuilding its army and then backing operations to win back the occupied desert zones.
Islamist gunmen fought Tuareg separatist rebels on Monday in a battle for control of the town of Menaka in Mali's northern desert, close to the border with Niger.
The independence-seeking MNLA group declared an independent Tuareg homeland in April after routing government troops in the wake of a March coup, but it has since lost control of the zone to Islamists and criminal networks.
(Reporting by Zakia Abdennebi; Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Jon Hemming)