Tensions over Timbuktu destruction
The United Nations Security Council is threatening sanctions against Islamist fighters in northern Mali and has condemned the destruction of sacred tombs in the ancient city of Timbuktu, but did not authorise an intervention force in a resolution passed on Thursday.
The council also warned of a worsening humanitarian situation and increasing cases of hostage-taking by terrorists in the landlocked West African nation.
It demanded the restoration of constitutional order and an end to hostilities following a March coup that allowed al-Qaeda-linked Islamists and Tuareg rebels to seize the county's north.
The resolution also called on member states to help the council blacklist anyone associated with al-Qaeda.
It did not, however, approve a force proposed by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, and the African Union that would include 3,200 personnel, including military, police and civilians.
Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, president of ECOWAS, said the organisation considers the resolution a first step toward authorising a proposed force that would try to oust the Islamists in northern Mali.
"I think it is an important step towards achieving peace and stability in Mali," he said, "given the rapid deterioration of the security and humanitarian situations."
France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said finances for a mission must be discussed, and the council would not give ECOWAS "carte blanche."
"We first have to get the concept of operation and the political strategy of ECOWAS," Araud said. "This resolution is evidence that we are going to greet it in a very positive manner."
The proposed operation has been hindered by logistical challenges as well as by the resistance of Mali's military ruler, who overthrew the democratically elected president on March 21.
Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo agreed to step aside in May and hand power to a civilian-led transitional government, but analysts say that he remains influential.
This week, Mali's parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to allow an internationally-backed military intervention in the north.
The Islamist faction known as Ansar Dine, or Protectors of the Faith, seized control of Timbuktu last week after ousting the Tuareg rebel faction that helped them invade northern Mali three months ago.
Ansar Dine has since drawn international condemnation for systematically razing the famous tombs of six Sufi saints and attacking the gate of a 600-year-old mosque.
The International Criminal Court has described the destruction of Timbuktu's heritage as a possible war crime, while UNESCO's committee on world heritage was holding a special session this week to address the pillaging of the site, one of the few in sub-Saharan Africa that is listed by the agency.
On Monday, an Ansar Dine spokesman said the faction does not recognise either the United Nations or the world court.
"The only tribunal we recognize is the divine court of Shariah," Ansar Dine spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha told The Associated Press. He said the group followed a "divine order" to destroy the tombs because ornamental graves violate Islamic law.
Ansar Dine has been linked to al-Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa, called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The terror cell is responsible for dozens of kidnappings in the region and attacks on Western targets, including the French and Israeli embassies in Mauritania.
Also on Thursday, SITE Monitoring Service reported that jihadists were warning France on the online al-Fida' forum not to intervene militarily or face repercussions and some who posted messages on the forum accused the country of seeking to preserve its strategic interests in the region.