Mali's junta faced crippling sanctions from west African neighbours Monday over a coup which has allowed separatist Tuareg rebels to seize the country's northern half, including fabled Timbuktu.
Both France and Belgium urged their citizens to leave the country which has slid into chaos since low-ranking officers ousted the government on March 22 claiming it had failed to take action on an insurgency in the north.
However the power vacuum played into the hands of the insurgents -- a motley crew of Tuareg separatists and radical Islamists -- who have captured key towns in the vast arid north virtually unopposed.
As the ancient city of Timbuktu fell Sunday and the bow-tie shaped nation appeared split in two by the Tuareg juggernaut, time ran out for the junta on a 72-hour deadline set by its neighbours to restore democracy or face sanctions.
The regional bloc has also warned it has 2,000 troops on alert for a possible military intervention.
The junta on Sunday announced various compromises in a bid to stave off these sanctions, which could bring the landlocked nation to its knees.
Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo declared Mali's constitution "restored" and promised elections in which the junta would not take part.
But, the man who led a band of renegade soldiers who overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure barely six weeks before he was to step down after a presidential election, also told AFP the junta was "not going anywhere".
The swift rebel advance in the north sparked panic further south as some citizens saw soldiers fleeing their posts and followed suit.
"We left yesterday (Sunday) afternoon and there were many people on the road, with their belongings. People are panicking, even the soldiers are fleeing," said a mother working in Sevare, a town near Mopti that houses a military camp.
This was confirmed by several residents.
Amid the chaos, Paris and Belgium asked their citizens to leave.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who attended the ECOWAS summit, said the situation in Mali was "rapidly deteriorating" but ruled out sending French soldiers to the former colony.
"The situation is dangerous, that is why I have asked all citizens whose presence is not essential to leave the country," Juppe told journalists, adding there "is no question of putting French soldiers on Malian soil."
Juppe expressed concern over the role of armed Islamist groups who he said appeared to be taking the upper hand in the north.
ECOWAS' current chairman, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, said Sunday he was worried that Mali was on the brink of being split in two.
"We are attached to Mali's territorial integrity. We will do what it takes to stop this rebellion and ensure Mali's territorial integrity is restored. It is the sub-region's duty," he said.
On Sunday, Tuareg rebels who in mid-January launched a fresh offensive in their decades-old struggle for an independent homeland in Mali's northern triangle, eased into Timbuktu, facing little or no resistance.
The fabled trading hub -- a United Nations world heritage site nicknamed the "pearl of the desert" -- was the last major town in Mali's north not to have fallen into rebel hands.
They had already seized Kidal and Gao, and all three towns had been heavily looted and vandalised, sources said.
"I estimate the damage at thousands of millions of CFA francs (millions of euros)," said Abdoulaye Diallo, a government employee with the tax service.
Announcing the "end of Malian occupation", the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement) said in a statement it would ensure "order and administration".
The MNLA has been joined by Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith, in Arabic) which is headed by renowned Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly and has ties to Al-Qaeda's north Africa branch, known as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Another Al Qaeda-related group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, has said it too took part in the fight for Gao.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes by the fighting and aid groups have warned that the combination of civil war and drought could lead to one of the continent's worst humanitarian emergencies.
Source: AFP Global Edition