New York - The United Nations Security Council on Thursday endorsed West African political efforts to end unrest in Mali, but stopped short of backing military intervention in the West African state where al-Qaeda-linked militants control significant territory.

Ansar Dine and its Salafist allies have hijacked a separatist Tuareg uprising in northern Mali and now control two-thirds of its desert north, which includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu where historic and religious sites have been destroyed in recent days.

The destruction of the holy sites has drawn international condemnation and Muslim leaders in the capital Bamako led a protest on Thursday.

Mahmoud Dicko, the influential head of Mali's Islamic High Council, called for calm and told a crowd of about 1 000 protesters that the destruction was carried out because of ignorance and with the intention of provoking the populace.

Mali's neighbours have been seeking UN backing for armed intervention to stabilise the country and take back the north. In June, the Security Council asked the African Union and West African group Ecowas to explain more precisely what kind of resolution they wanted.

Thursday's resolution did not give them the backing they sought, but did not rule it out in future. It also expressed full support for Ecowas and AU mediation efforts in Mali.

The French-drafted resolution said the council “expresses its readiness to further examine the request of Ecowas once additional information has been provided regarding the objectives, means and modalities of the envisaged deployment”.

France and Morocco have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the idea of the Security Council backing Ecowas intervention in Mali, though a number of other council members have been more reluctant.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: “The international community must do everything it can to fight terrorism in Mali and the Sahel, which is threatening to destabilise the whole region.”

He said France urged countries in the region to intensify co-operation in fighting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

Kadre Desire Ouedraogo, president of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Commission, told the 15-nation council his group had decided to “speed up the deployment of the Ecowas stand-by force in Mali”.

He said Ecowas would press ahead with mediation efforts. If those failed, Ouedraogo said, Ecowas would help Mali's army “restore the territorial integrity of the country”.

Leaders of the West African bloc are expected to meet in Burkina Faso with bickering Malian political leaders over the weekend to work out a broad-based transitional government which will lead the effort to take back the north from the Islamists.

Some of the Muslim leaders who gathered in a conference centre in Bamako on Thursday urged military action to free the north. Others threatened to start enlisting volunteers to go and fight if nothing is done.

“This is no longer the time for the statements of condemnation. We are ready to go to the battle front with weapons. We are asking that a list should be opened to register volunteers who will swear on the Qur’an,” said Bandiougou Diabate, a preacher.

Once regarded as a good example of African democracy, Mali was plunged into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels from the north to seize nearly two thirds of the country.

Ecowas, the umbrella group of 15 countries aimed at promoting regional co-operation, has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, such as the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

African officials have said previously that Nigeria, Niger and Senegal have pledged to provide the core of a 3 270-member force whose mission would initially be bolstering Mali's fragmented army and stabilising political institutions, and then tackling the rebel-held north if talks fail. - Reuters