PARIS/BAMAKO France warned on Wednesday the seizure of northern Mali by a Tuareg-led rebellion was playing into the hands of local al Qaeda units, urging neighbors including Algeria to do more to tackle the threat.
For long one of the most stable democracies in West Africa, Mali has plunged into turmoil since a widely condemned March 22 coup that emboldened Tuareg rebels in their quest for a northern homeland.
They have been joined by Islamists bent on imposing Islamic sharia law across the whole of the moderate Muslim state, the latest security worry for a region battling organized crime and home-grown militant groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram.
"We fear that in this confused situation al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will take advantage of the situation to expand its perimeter of activity and strengthen the terrorist threat," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said.
AQIM is a mostly autonomous wing which sprung from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007. The group, believed to number a few hundred members, has taken advantage of weak governance and poverty to mount sporadic attacks on local armies and kidnap Westerners, earning millions of dollars in ransoms.
The rebellion is likely to complicate efforts to secure the release of six French hostages held by the group.
While the stated aim of the coup leaders was to give the army more clout to tackle the two-month-old revolt, their power grab triggered a rebel sweep through a northern zone the size of France - in many cases hard on the heels of fleeing army forces.
The Tuareg-led rebel group MNLA says it now controls the three main towns in the desert zone - Kidal, Gao and the ancient trading post of Timbuktu - and has stressed it has no intention of pushing further north.
But there is growing disquiet about the role of the local Ansar Dine Islamist group, which, rather than seeking to carve out a northern homeland, wants to impose Islamic law across all of Mali.
"Our fear is based on AQIM's endemic presence in the region and the links we know between AQIM and Ansar Dine," Valero said.
Paris expects the U.N. Security Council to issue a statement on Mali later on Wednesday to show its support of the 15-state West African bloc ECOWAS's efforts to find a solution to the crisis.
Valero said it was vital Mali's neighbors worked together to prevent the rise of radical Islamists in the region.
"We've been saying for months that regional countries must cooperate with a stronger response to fight AQIM," he said.
"We want everybody to be part of it be it Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso ... and we want naturally that Algeria plays all its role in this situation and in face of the terrorist threat."
France, the former colonial ruler, is Mali's fourth-largest donor of aid - a vital source of income in one of the world's poorest countries - and it also trains and equips government forces. Since the rebellion, it has suspended its cooperation, but has maintained aid to the population and advised its 5,000 citizens living in the West African state to leave.
The United States said on Tuesday Mali's territorial integrity was at stake and called again on the junta to step down. In a security update, it said it was now authorizing the departure of non-emergency U.S. Embassy personnel and families. A junior officer in the central Malian town of Mopti - outside the northern territory which the rebels have claimed as their homeland - feared the rebels could mount an offensive on the town, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako. "We've had indications that the town has already been infiltrated by a number of rebel units," said the officer, who requested anonymity.
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; editing by Mark John)