Islamists have upper hand on north Mali
The UN Security Council called Wednesday for an immediate ceasefire and return to democracy in Mali, prompting an announcement of an end to "military operations" by Tuareg rebels in the north.
The UN statement adopted by the 15-member council also expressed "strong condemnation of the forcible seizure of power from the democratically-elected government" and urged the mutineers "to ensure the safety and security of all Malian officials."
The meeting came as world leaders scrambled to stop Mali's descent into chaos two weeks after a coup in Bamako touched off a sequence that saw Tuareg rebels backed by radical Islamists conquer half the country.
Both France, the country's former colonial master, and the United States have invested significantly in Mali in a bid to stem growing extremism in the Sahel region.
In Bamako, the new military rulers' efforts to restore order fell apart as a coalition of some 50 political parties and over 100 civil society organisations refused to take part in a proposed national meeting on the country's future.
The junta, which had planned the meeting for Thursday, was quickly forced to postpone it.
Following the UN initiative, the Tuareg separatist group Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) said in a statement that "after the complete liberation of the Azawad territory (northern Mali) and given the strong request by the international community" it had decided "unilaterally to declare the end of military operations from midnight Thursday."
However their announcement came amid growing reports that it is the Islamists who now have the upper hand in the north.
In the wake of the coup that ousted president Amani Toumani Toure on March 22, the Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups took control of the key northern towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, effectively cutting the country in two.
The Tuareg separatist MNLA and Islamist Ansar Dine, which is linked to the regional Al-Qaeda faction, have seized a chunk of Mali's territory larger than France since January.
In a recent three-day swoop they snatched the northern capitals of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu from an army in disarray since low-ranking soldiers, angry at the government's handling of the rebellion, seized power.
Mali's junta on Wednesday denounced rights violations by the rebel groups.
"Women and girls have been kidnapped and raped by the new occupants who are laying down their own law," said junta spokesman Amadou Konare -- pointing the finger at the MNLA, Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A resident of Gao told AFP backed up the accusation.
"It's the truth. Here at night they seize the women, they carry them off and rape them," he told AFP, adding that he had was aware of at least 10 such cases.
An employee of a humanitarian organisation said "there are no more cars, equipment, material. There is no hospital, no dispensary, no health centre."
In the ancient city of Timbuktu, Islamists clamped down on looting and imposed sharia law, ordering women to wear headscarves and threatening to cut off the hands of thieves.
Residents said the Islamists had ransacked bars and other places selling alcohol.
The head of Ansar Dine, notorious rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly, has set up base at the town's military camp and has been flanked by three of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's top leaders.
Ag Ghaly's men have fought alongside the secular MNLA which wants independence for the desert nomads who originate in the area, however the two groups have very different aims and appear to have fallen out.
Residents and security sources report the Islamists have chased the Tuareg out of Timbuktu, burning their flag and replacing it with their black jihad flag.
"Ansar Dine has allowed MNLA elements to stay behind the airport" just outside the town, a security source said. A hotelier said there were less than 20 Tuareg rebels stationed there.
But on their website, the group said it was "holding its position in the face of all these mafia networks and distances itself from Ansar Dine and others who rise up on the path to the liberation of Azawad".
In an interview with AFP, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned the Islamist advance could have wide repercussions.
"Some of the rebels may be content to control the northern territories. Others, with AQIM, may plan to take over all of Mali, in order to create an Islamist republic," he said.
Feeling the bite of mounting sanctions and pressure from all sides, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo unsuccessfully proposed a national meeting to determine "what will be best for the country".
Separately, hundreds of Malian youths from the country's north assembled in Bamako and demanded weapons to fight the Islamist and Tuareg rebels.
The crisis precipitated by Sanogo's coup also sparked mounting concern that a massive regional humanitarian emergency fueled by conflict and drought was developing.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since the Tuareg rebels launched their offensive on March 17.