World leaders scrambled to stop Mali's descent into chaos Wednesday, two weeks after a coup in Bamako touched off a sequence which saw Tuareg rebels backed by radical Islamists conquer half the country.
The United Nations Security Council was to make a statement on the crisis amid warnings Al-Qaeda-linked militants were on the verge of creating an Islamic state on a territory larger than France.
The European Union called for an immediate ceasefire in the north, voicing "great concern" over the situation in the fabled city of Timbuktu where Islamic radicals imposed sharia law.
Islamist rulers ordered women to wear headscarves and threatened 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 Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) -- a secular group seeking independence for the Tuaregs -- to conquer more than half of Mali in a matter of days.
However residents and security sources report the Islamists are in charge of Timbuktu which is famously used as a metaphor for a faraway place and has a rich 900-year history as an African trading and cultural capital.
"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.
In the north-eastern city of Gao the situation grew more desperate as reports of rape, widespread looting and restrictions of movement emerged under a motley crew of rebels and criminal groups.
Military rulers in Bamako who have been scrambling to restore order since their coup thrust the nation into crisis on March 22, on Wednesday accused 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.
Gao's elected lawmaker Abdou Sidibe confirmed that it was under the control of several rebel groups including AQIM splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and traffickers.
"Gao has been occupied, annexed by three groups. The MNLA is in one camp, Ansar Dine and the west African jihadists are together and the traffickers ... the road to Bamako is closed, the road to Niger is closed, there is no food left in town," he said.
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.
UN Security Council members on Wednesday were expected to agree on a joint statement sending out a strong message but offering no firm action on the ground.
The United States took action Tuesday, joining the African Union in imposing travel bans on coup leaders as international efforts were redoubled to restore democratic rule in a country descending into chaos.
Feeling the bite of the 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."
His ousting of President Amadou Toumani Toure weeks before a presidential election -- ostensibly over the government's failure to stamp out the Tuareg rebellion -- achieved the opposite of the desired effect.
Following what some observers have described as an "accidental coup" by a band of low-ranking officers angry at their hierarchy, the Tuareg-Islamist alliance swept across the north, seizing all key cities virtually unopposed.
The 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) already cut off the landlocked country which depends heavily on imported fuel and froze access to its bank account in Dakar.
One of its mediators, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore -- who took part in two coups to reach power -- started holding talks with Malian leaders on Tuesday in a bid to convince Sanogo to climb down.
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.
The UN cultural agency UNESCO also called on the Malian authorities and the warring factions to respect the desert country's heritage and the "outstanding architectural wonders" in Timbuktu.