Mali's national assembly has called for intervention as Islamists enforce Sharia law, destroy ancient shrines and trap residents with landmines.
In a statement calling for "restoration of territorial integrity", the Parliament "calls on the entire Malian people for implacable resistance to the occupation and boosting solidarity by all possible means".
Protesters from northern Mali demonstrated in the capital on Wednesday against the Islamist takeover of the immense northern region. Some 2 000 people braved pouring rain to join the sit-in protest at Bamako's Independence Square monument, chanting: "We want weapons to liberate the north."
"If the army doesn't want to go to war, then give us the means to liberate our territory," said Oumar Maiga, leader of a northern citizens' collective.
Tuareg lawmaker Nock Ag Attia said the tribes present in the north – the Tuareg, Fulani, Songhai – did not "share the foolishness" of the Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-linked Islamists.
The protest came as the international community mulled ways to help Mali's embattled interim government save its vast desert north, a territory larger than France or Texas, from the armed Islamists.
The presence of the rebel Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is openly allied with al-Qaeda's north African franchise, has sparked concern that the region may become a new haven for terrorism.
Mali is being ruled by a 12-month interim government set up after a March 22 coup and which has proved powerless to deal with the partition of the country since the Islamists and Tuareg rebels captured key northern cities.
The Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) will hold a mini-summit in Burkina Faso on Saturday to discuss the formation of a unity government that could request military intervention from its neighbours.
Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, who has not returned to his country since being attacked in his office in May, will travel from France to attend the summit, Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said.
The 70-year-old Traore was attacked by a mob opposed to him taking over from the junta inside his office on May 21.
Mali has continued its descent into chaos since then and is de facto split in two, with Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda controlling the north.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Wednesday denounced an "accumulation of horrors" in rebel-held northern Mali, saying women were raped, men beheaded and ancient treasures destroyed.
He repeated earlier comments that he was "confident" the UN Security Council would soon pass a resolution authorising the force to assist Mali win back its territory.
"The aim is firstly to re-establish constitutional order in the south and to ensure and affirm Mali's integrity," Fabius said. Following that, the goal would be "to regain lost territory".
'International terror bases'
The former colonial power's Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France was determined to prevent the setting up of "international terror bases that threaten the peace and prosperity of the whole region and our security too".
Ecowas says it has 3 300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.
The UN Security Council will on Thursday threaten sanctions against the Islamist fighters, but will not give a UN mandate to the proposed African intervention force, diplomats said.
The 15-nation council is to pass a resolution giving support to the move by West African states to send a force to Mali.
The ramped up diplomatic efforts came after Islamists in the fabled city of Timbuktu set about wrecking UN world heritage-listed ancient shrines, which they consider idolatrous.
Ansar Dine has already enforced strict sharia law in Timbuktu in recent months, as well as in other key cities, and at the weekend began their rampage against the tombs they consider "haram", or forbidden.
They smashed seven tombs of ancient Muslim saints as well as the "sacred door" to a 15th century mosque.
'Wanton and ruthless'
The European Union condemned what it said was a "wanton and ruthless" destruction of cultural treasures.
"This appears to be a deliberate attempt to destroy a valued and ancient part of the religious and cultural heritage not only of Mali's people but of the whole world," a statement from the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said.
"These sacred places of prayer, listed by Unesco as world heritage, must be protected now and for posterity."
In the key northern city of Gao, Ansar Dine's al-Qaeda allies have planted landmines around the city to prevent a counter-offensive by the Tuareg fighters they violently expelled last week.
The Tuareg – descendants of those who founded Timbuktu in the fifth century – spearheaded the initial takeover of the north as part of a decades-old rebellion to reclaim what they consider to be their homeland.
The previously unknown Ansar Dine, who had been fighting on their flanks, swiftly took the upper hand and pushed the Tuareg rebels from all positions of power, most recently in bloody clashes in Gao. – Sapa-AFP