Mali's junta on Wednesday denounced rights violations by rebel groups who have seized half the country since a coup two weeks ago plunged the west African nation into chaos.
As lawlessness and religious extremism gripped the desert north staked out by Tuareg rebels and Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda factions, the UN Security Council called for an end to hostilities and the restoration of democracy.
Diplomats in New York said a draft statement adopted by the council expressed alarm over the presence of Al-Qaeda-linked militants who have imposed sharia law in the fabled city of Timbuktu and plan an Islamic state.
Both the French and the United States have invested significantly in Mali in a bid to stem growing extremism in the Sahel.
In Bamako military rulers' efforts to restore order fell apart as a coalition of some 50 political parties and over 100 civil society organisations refused to take part in a proposed national meeting on the country's future.
The Tuareg separatist group Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and Islamist Ansar Dine which is linked to regional Al-Qaeda factions have seized a chunk of Mali's territory larger than France since January.
In a three-day swoop they snatched the northern capitals of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu from an army in disarray since low-ranking soldiers, angry at the government's handling of the rebellion, seized power on March 22.
The junta on Wednesday accused the rebels in Gao of "grave rights violations".
"Women and girls have been kidnapped and raped by the new occupants who are laying down their own law," said junta spokesman Amadou Konare - pointing the finger at the MNLA, Ansar Dine and AQIM.
Elected lawmaker Abdou Sidibe said panicked residents in Gao were being stopped from fleeing, amid reports of widespread looting.
"Public buildings, private offices, banks, NGO headquarters, food banks, everything has been vandalised," by the marauding rebels, said an employee of a humanitarian orgaisation.
"There are no more cars, equipment, material. There is no hospital, no dispensary, no health centre. They removed even the beds, the doors of the hospital," he said, adding electricity was expected to be cut soon.
In the ancient city of Timbuktu, Islamist clamped down on looting and have imposed sharia law, ordering women to wear headscarves and threatening to cut off the hands of thieves.
Residents said Wednesday they had ransacked bars and other places selling alcohol.
The head of the extremist group Ansar Dine, notorious rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly, has set up base at the town's military camp and has been flanked by three of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's top leaders.
Ag Ghaly's men have fought alongside the secular MNLA which wants independence for the desert nomads who originate in the area, however the two groups have very different aims and appeared to have fallen out.
Residents and security sources report the Islamists have chased the Tuareg out of Timbuktu, burning their flag and replacing it with their black jihad flag.
"Ansar Dine has allowed MNLA elements to stay behind the airport" just outside the town, a security source said. A hotelier said there were less than 20 Tuareg rebels stationed there.
However on their website the group said it was "holding its position in the face of all these mafia networks and distances itself from Ansar Dine and others who rise up on the path to the liberation of Azawad".
In an interview to AFP on Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned that the Islamist advance could have continental repercussions.
"Some of the rebels may be content to control the northern territories. Others, with AQIM, may plan to take over all of Mali, in order to create an Islamist republic," he said.
Feeling the bite of mounting sanctions and pressure from all sides, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo proposed a national meeting on Thursday to determine "what will be best for the country".
However the majority of the political class united against the junta said the meeting was "contrary and incompatible with a return to constitutional order" and it would thus "not participate".
A delegation sent by the junta to Nigeria for talks with the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on Tuesday was still meeting with officials in a bid to find a way out of the crisis.
ECOWAS has cut off the landlocked country which depends heavily on imported fuel and froze access to its bank account in Dakar and its military chiefs will meet in Abidjan on Thursday to discuss the possible deployment of troops.
The crisis precipitated by Sanogo's coup also sparked mounting concern that a massive regional humanitarian emergency fueled by conflict and drought was developing.
More than 200,000 people have been forced from their homes since the Tuareg rebels launched their offensive on March 17.
Source: AFP Global Edition