BAMAKO (AFP) - Armed Islamists stormed the Algerian consulate in northeastern Mali and abducted seven diplomats Thursday amid fears Al Qaeda-linked fighters are turning the country into a rogue state and fuelling a humanitarian crisis.
Alarmed by the sudden collapse of the west African nation, which has split into a rebel-controlled north and junta-controlled south in two weeks since a coup, the international community grappled for a response and a place to lay the blame.
Algeria's foreign ministry said an unidentified group had attacked its consulate in the town of Gao and kidnapped the consul and six staff members.
Witnesses told AFP the raiders hoisted the black Salafist flag that has been the emblem of Islamist rebels who have overrun Timbuktu and other northern cities.
"Everything necessary will be done to ensure the safe and sound return of our nationals," the ministry said.
Amnesty International warned Thursday that Mali's north faces a humanitarian catastrophe after rebels looted food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing food shortages.
The dire situation stems from a March 22 coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo and a small group of low-ranking soldiers who ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before he was due to step down.
In what some have dubbed "an accidental coup", the troops justified their takeover by arguing Toure's regime had failed to tackle the Tuareg uprising.
But rebels exploited the power vacuum and swept Mali's north.
The junta, which at times told the Malian army not to resist the blitzkrieg, on Thursday called on northern Mali residents to resist the "invaders" themselves.
In the capital Bamako on Thursday, regional mediator Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said an announcement in "the right direction" could be expected soon from coup leader Sanogo, adding he had "the right attitude."
Though the envoy was optimistic sanctions could be lifted "very soon", west African military chiefs discussed the possible deployment of a 2,000-strong force into a section of Mali the size of France now in Tuareg separatist and Islamist hands.
Observers say the West is obliged to intervene after its role in ousting Libyan dictator Moamer Kadhafi forced hundreds of well-armed Tuareg fighters to flee home to Mali, overwhelming its army and giving other outlaws a means to serve their own interests.
"The factor that unleashed all of this is the Western intervention in Libya," said Eric Denece, director of the French think-tank CF2R.
Paris had been warned of the fallout, but is hoping Mali's neighbours will find a solution to restore democracy and halt the Islamist juggernaut endangering the whole of the fragile Sahel region.
"There won't be a military solution for the Tuaregs. It's a political solution that we need," Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
As the Tuareg trumpeted the success of a decades-old struggle to "liberate" their homeland, their fundamentalist comrades-turned-rivals began imposing sharia law in northern Mali.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said as a result of their successful conquest of an area they call the Azawad, they are halting all military operations from midnight Thursday.
But the desert nomads are not alone in the north and many say it is Iyad Ag Ghaly's Ansar Dine -- which has begun imposing sharia law -- who are the new masters of the desert.
"From what we know, the MNLA is in charge of nothing at the moment ... it is Iyad who is the strongest and he is with AQIM," a Malian military source told AFP, referring to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
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".
Three of AQIM's top leaders, all of them Algerians, were spotted in Timbuktu in talks with Ag Ghaly earlier this week.
Ansar Dine, "Defenders of Faith" in Arabic, has ordered women to wear headscarves and threatened to cut off the hands of thieves in the ancient city, once the jewel in Mali's burgeoning tourism industry.
Several women have reportedly been raped in the chaos and three Westerners were evacuated from Timbuktu after it fell Sunday, sources close to the rescue said Thursday.
The UN Security Council has called for an immediate ceasefire but proposed no firm action as the two-week old junta floundered.
The US said Thursday it would keep up pressure on Mali's coup leaders in hopes they would step down. Sanctions against coup leader Sanogo included a closing of landlocked Mali's borders to fuel and other imports.
In an interview with the French dailies Le Monde and Liberation published Thursday, Sanogo begged Western powers to help him counter the Islamist push in the north.
"If the great powers are able to cross oceans to battle fundamentalist structures in Afghanistan, what's stopping them coming to us? Our committee wants the best for the country," he said.