Mali's interim president Diouncounda Traore, right, speaks with military junta leader Amadou Haya Sanogo, left, at a military base in Kati.

Mali's embattled interim government ramped up diplomatic efforts on Tuesday to save the north from Islamist fighters who have smashed World Heritage shrines in Timbuktu and rigged another city with mines.

The post-coup transition authorities in Bamako are powerless in the face of the armed Al Qaeda-allied groups occupying the north, and Mali's neighbours in west Africa have proposed a stronger unity government be formed.

West African leaders will meet in Burkina Faso's capital on Saturday to discuss this option with senior Malian political figures, as the Islamists escalate efforts to exert their control in the country's north.

In Timbuktu, where they have enforced sharia law for the past three months, Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) have smashed seven tombs of ancient Muslim saints as well as the 'sacred door' to a 15th century mosque.

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 has deeply upset Malians and prompted outpourings of condemnation from abroad.

The interim government in Bamako, set up after a March 22 which led to the northern takeover as the armed groups exploited the chaos, is scrambling for assistance to recover its territory.

“We will do everything to recover our territory,” Foreign Minister Sadio Lamine Sow told AFP, speaking at the end of a two-day visit to Algeria, where he held talks with authorities in Algiers.

“Everything that can be done for us towards a reconquest of these occupied territories, we will accept it willingly... when these efforts go in the direction we agree with,” he added.

Algeria's African Affairs Minister Abdelkader Messahel said Algiers was working on a political solution that both countries believed was still possible, saying it was on the right path.

Sow condemned 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.

The 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.

A March 22 coup in Mali eased the way for Tuareg separatist rebels to seize an area in the north larger than France that they consider their homeland.

However, the previously unknown Ansar Dine group seized the upper hand while fighting on their flanks. Openly allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, they have since pushed the Tuareg rebels from all positions of power.

After expelling the Tuareg fighters from the key city of Gao in deadly clashes last week, Ansar Dine's Al-Qaeda allies have planted landmines around the city to prevent a possible counter-offensive.

The Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) said on Monday that residents were being prevented from leaving the city. - AFP