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UN warns Islamist fighters in Mali

The UN Security Council has threatened sanctions against Islamist fighters in northern Mali and condemned the destruction of heritage sites in the ancient city of Timbuktu in a new resolution.

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 following a March coup that allowed Islamists and Tuareg rebels to seize the northern part of the county.

The resolution also called on member states to blacklist anyone associated with al Qaida.

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, president of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), said the organisation considers the resolution a first step toward authorising a proposed force of 3,200 people, including military, police and civilians.

"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 the council awaits an official request by ECOWAS to authorise a stabilisation force that would try to oust the Islamists in northern Mali. Mr 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," Mr Araud said. "This resolution is evidence that we are going to greet it in a very positive manner. We have expressed our strong political will to support ECOWAS, but the initiative has to come from our African friends, ECOWAS and the African Union."

A European diplomat who requested anonymity in order to speak about private talks said council members were not ready to support the proposed mission because they needed more details. The operation has been hindered by logistical challenges as well as by the resistance of the country'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 take all the necessary measures 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.

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