The UN Security Council has unanimously approved a plan to back an African-led military force to help the Malian army oust Islamic militants who seized the northern half of the country and are turning it into an al-Qaeda terrorist hub.
The French-sponsored resolution expresses alarm over the infiltration by 'al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), affiliated groups and other extremist groups,' and condemns 'the abuses of human rights committed in the north of Mali by armed rebels, terrorist and other extremist groups'.
The UN's assistant secretary-general for human rights returned from Mali to tell reporters this week that al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic militias have imposed a harsh version of Shariah law on the north.
'The population is suffering,' Ivan Simonovic said.
He received testimony that forced marriage, forced prostitution, and rape are widespread, and that women are being sold as 'wives' for less than $1000 in northern Mali.
Al-Qaeda had abolished taxes in the north and were using extortion, ransom payments and funds from drug transshipping to establish their rule, he said.
Children were being recruited to build bombs and to serve as soldiers, with payments made to their families of $US600 ($A588) on enlistment and $US400 a month afterward, in a territory in which half the population live son less than $US1.25 a day, Simonovic said.
Executions of captured soldiers and cases of rape had become 'more systemic', he said.
More than 1.5 million Malians have had to flee their homes, with some 40,000 displaced people in the regional city of Mopti. More than 100,000 refugees have registered in Mauritania, over 100,000 in Burkina Faso, 40,000 in Niger and 30,000 in Algeria.
The resolution adopted on Friday gives Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon 45 days to help Mali, the West Africans and the African Union develop plans to recover the occupied territory.
It invokes Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, which opens the door to military intervention and enforcement of the council's decisions. It calls for help from the European Union to help train and assist the Malian army to retake the north.
Another resolution authorising deployment and backing of the African peacekeeping force would have to come later, after Ban sends specific recommendations to the Security Council.
The main thrust of the plan is likely to be hammered out at an October 19 meeting in Bamako, Mali, of representatives of the United Nations, ECOWAS, the AU, the European Union and neighbouring countries.
Mali's democratically elected leader was ousted in a military coup in March.
The junta accused him of failing to quell a rebellion in the north, which began in January. After the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum and within weeks took control of the north, aided by an Islamist faction. But the Islamists quickly ousted the Tuaregs and took control of half the country.
Friday's resolution urges the transitional authorities and Malian secular rebel groups such as the Tuaregs to cut off their ties to al-Qaeda and negotiate as soon as possible 'in order to seek a sustainable political solution' to the crisis.