Mali's embattled coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo on Friday asked for help to halt advancing Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters who seized another key northern town from overwhelmed soldiers.
The appeal came as the week-old junta, already frozen out by its foreign allies, stares down possible economic sanctions from neighbouring countries demanding a return to democracy, which could cripple the landlocked nation.
After heavy fighting, Tuareg separatist rebels and an allied armed Islamist group on Friday entered the strategic town of Kidal, 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the capital.
"The rebels are in charge, the army put up no resistance," a teacher said on condition of anonymity.
"Yesterday they launched their offensive, it stopped at about 8:00 pm (2000 GMT) and began again this morning. They have taken the two military camps."
A civil servant confirmed to AFP the rebels had entered the town and were telling people to go about their business and not be afraid.
He said the men were Islamist fighters belonging to the group Ansar Dine which has emerged on the flanks of the Tuareg rebel Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) in recent weeks, in an ambiguous relationship.
The MNLA in mid-January relaunched a decades-old fight for the independence of what the Tuareg consider their homeland in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The poorly-equipped Malian army has proved no match for the desert warriors, boosted by the return of heavily-armed fighters from Libya's conflict.
Angry at government's "incompetence" in dealing with the conflict, renegade soldiers chased President Amadou Toumani Toure out of power on March 22, a move which prompted stiff rebukes from abroad.
"The rebels continue to attack our country and terrorise our people," coup leader Sanogo told journalists at the military barracks outside Bamako which have become the junta's headquarters.
"The situation is now critical, our army needs support from Mali's friends to save the civilian population and protect Mali's territorial integrity."
The appeal came after the 15-nation regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), on Thursday threatened a "diplomatic and financial embargo" unless constitutional order is restored within 72 hours.
Regional leaders tightened the noose around the junta after scrapping a mediation mission in mid-air when dozens of pro-coup demonstrators swarmed the runway at Bamako's airport, preventing them from landing.
The grouping had already suspended landlocked Mali on Tuesday and has warned its regional troops are on standby.
Standard Bank emerging markets analyst Samir Gadio said Thursday economic sanctions would be key to resolving the crisis.
"This is because Mali is a landlocked economy and relies on neighbouring countries (primarily Ivory Coast) for fuel imports and exports."
As a member of the west African monetary union, if the common central bank cut Mali off "the fragile Malian banking and financial system would be brought to its knees within weeks and the junta left without cash to service public sector salaries."
The Tuareg offensive has caused more than 200,000 people to flee their homes in the remote region that is also a key regional hub for weapons and drug trafficking.
The seizure of Kidal, the capital of the north-eastern region bordering Niger and Algeria, is a huge prize for the rebels who have already taken the two other main towns of Tessalit and Aguelhok in the province.
Aguelhok, taken in January, was one of the bloodiest battles in their offensive and France said 82 civilians and soldiers were summarily executed - tied up and shot point blank or their throats slit.
It was during this battle that the involvement of Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith in Arabic) first became clear when it released a video showing dead and captured soldiers after the attack, and naming Iyad Ag Ghaly as its commander.
Ag Ghaly, who enjoys great regional prestige, led the country's second Tuareg rebellion since Mali's independence between 1990 and 1995, and has ties to Al-Qaeda's north African branch.
Ansar Dine says it aims to impose sharia, or Islamic law, on the country. The MNLA has distanced itself from any religious demands and the links between the two groups remain unclear.
Source: AFP Global Edition