BAMAKO // Protesters from northern Mali today held a sit-in in Bamako against Islamists who have enforced strict sharia, destroyed ancient shrines and trapped residents with landmines in their region.
A few thousand people gathered in the pouring rain at the Independence Square monument in Bamako chanting: "We want weapons to liberate the north."
"All together for the liberation of our country," read one banner. Another complained that "the north of our country has been abandoned by our leaders who have other concerns."
The protest came as the international community mulled options to help Mali's embattled interim government in Bamako save its north 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 vast desert region may become a new haven for terrorism.
Mali is currently 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) regional bloc will hold a mini-summit in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou on Saturday to discuss the formation of a unity government that could request military intervention from its neighbours.
"One cannot resolve the problem in the north if you don't first solve the problem in Bamako," Guinean President Alpha Conde said in Paris on Tuesday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country was "confident" the UN Security Council would soon pass a resolution authorising the force to assist Mali win back its territory.
"This will allow our African friends to take a series of decisions, with international backing of course," Fabius said.
ECOWAS says it has 3,300 troops ready to deploy in Mali.
The former colonial power's Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the country is determined to prevent the setting up of "international terror bases that threaten the peace and prosperity of the whole region and our security too." The ramped up diplomatic efforts came after Islamists in the fabled city of Timbuktu set about wrecking ancient shrines, which they consider idolatrous and are part of a UN world heritage site now listed as endangered.
Ansar Dine has already enforced strict sharia law in Timbuktu in recent months, as well as 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.
And 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 5th century -- spearheaded the initial takeover of the north as part of a decades-old rebellion to reclaim what they consider to be their homeland.
However, 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.