BAMAKO - The international community on Tuesday weighed options to help embattled Mali save its north from rebels who have smashed ancient shrines in Timbuktu and rigged another city with landmines.

France said it was determined to prevent the north of Mali from becoming a haven for extremists, as the hardliners who occupied the region three months ago escalate efforts to cement their control of the vast desert area. “Our determination will be total in preventing groups like AQIM  setting up international terror bases that threaten the peace and prosperity of the whole region and our security too,” said French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. As post-coup transition authorities in Bamako find themselves powerless in the face of the armed Al Qaeda-allied groups occupying the north, its neighbours are seeking a stronger unity government that could request African military intervention. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc says it has 3,300 troops ready to deploy in Mali. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told journalists in Paris 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.

Guinean President Alpha Conde said that only a government of national unity would have the legitimacy to request African military intervention.

“One cannot resolve the problem in the north if you don’t first solve the problem in Bamako,” he told AFP after meeting Fabius.

The formation of such a government will be discussed by ECOWAS leaders and senior Malian political figures at a mini-summit in Burkina Faso’s capital on Saturday.

Currently a 12-month interim government is in place in Bamako which took over from the junta who overthrew the former regime on March 22.

The coup had eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels to seize an area in the north larger than France that they consider their homeland.

In Timbuktu, where the rebels have enforced sharia law for the past three months, Ansar Dine has in recent days smashed seven tombs of ancient saints as well as the “sacred door” to a 15th century mosque.

Youths who had planned to hold a protest march against the destruction were convinced by town elders to abandon the demonstration to avoid a bloodbath.

“We asked the youths not to protest because we are scared these people kill them,” said a patriarch from the suburb of Bella Farandi, identified only as Kamiss.

The UN cultural agency UNESCO on Tuesday called for an end to the “repugnant acts” of destruction and called for the head of the body to create an emergency fund for the cultural treasures and send a mission to assess the damage.

The destruction in Timbuktu, a world heritage site now listed as endangered, has deeply upset Malians and prompted outpourings of condemnation from abroad.

And in the key northern city of Gao, Ansar Dine’s Qaeda allies have planted landmines around the city to prevent a counter-offensive by the Tuareg fighters they violently expelled last week.

Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui said the mines were also to prevent military intervention by other west African states.

“Yes, we have placed military devices which are defending the town against attacks. Our enemy is also all the countries who will send fighters here,” he said.

The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said Monday that MUJAO were preventing residents from leaving the city.

As the situation worsened in the northern cities, already suffering a humanitarian crisis as a result of the rebel occupation, Mali’s interim government was scrambling for assistance to recover its territory.

“We will do everything to recover our territory,” Foreign Minister Sadio Lamine Sow told AFP at the end of a two-day visit to Algeria.

Sow branded the armed groups now controlling the cities in northern Mali as “armed terrorists.”

“It is they who are raping women, pillaging banks” and conducting a campaign of destruction, he said, saying these acts were crimes against humanity and would not go unpunished.

International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has warned that the destruction of religious and historical buildings could amount to a war crime and those responsible could face prosecution.