BAMAKO Around 2,000 Malians marched through the capital Bamako on Tuesday appealing for foreign help to dislodge Tuareg-led rebels in the north, saying a humanitarian crisis was looming and civilians had been abused.
Rebels capitalized on the disarray after a March 22 coup to seize the three northern regions they claim as their desert homeland of "Azawad", a secession bid that has been shunned by Mali's neighbors and foreign capitals from Paris to Washington.
But while coup leaders have since agreed to hand power back to civilians, there is no prospect of a push to win back the northern desert zone larger than France, which analysts fear could be a haven for Islamist groups and al Qaeda agents.
"We are asking the international community to carry out its duty and secure the Malian territory," said 28-year-old Mahamadou Dioura, one of the organizers of the march.
"During the taking of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao nearly everything was destroyed - hospitals, medical centers, water supplies," he said of pillaging in the main towns during the rebel advance just over a week ago.
The 15-state ECOWAS grouping of West African countries is preparing an intervention force of up to 3,000 troops but has said its mandate is to prevent any further rebel advances rather than win back the lost ground. Ex-colonial power France has offered logistical support but ruled out sending troops.
The destruction of medical infrastructure and pillaging of supplies stored locally by aid agencies preparing to tackle the latest food emergency in the drought-prone region has added to the predicament of local people.
Eyewitnesses have in the past few days reported victims of traffic accidents being left to die in the road and women dying during childbirth because of the lack of medical care.
Participants in the march, many of whom have family connections with people in the north, reported allegations of widespread rape in a region where law and order has broken down.
While such allegations were impossible to verify, they will make it harder for any future Malian government to open negotiations with the rebels on a possible compromise such as autonomy stopping short of full independence.
"There have been too many negotiations," Homeny Belco Maiga, the head of the regional assembly for Kidal, said at the march.
"If it continues this way, we will not join the process and we will take matters into our own hands. What I mean is that the population will revolt," he added.
The regular army, hit by desertion, has taken no visible steps to re-take territory, and hundreds of young Malians in Bamako have said they will form militias to go and fight at the front. But their chances of success are slim against rebels equipped with heavy weapons brought in from Libya.
Junta leader captain Amadou Sanogo agreed to stand down last week after neighboring countries imposed sanctions, including a closure of the border to trade, that would quickly have began throttling the economy of Africa's third largest gold miner.
National parliament speaker Diouncounda Traore is due to be sworn in as interim president on Thursday with the task of steering the country towards elections, due in theory within 40 days but in practice only when security on the ground allows.
Sanogo, who according to the ECOWAS-mediated accord for a power handover will have a say in the transition authority to be put in place before the elections, said late on Monday that he would refuse any attempt to sideline him.
"You can't just put aside a military committee that has carried out a coup," he told reporters. "You can say you don't want them to be at the very top of things, but just put them aside - you won't see that anywhere."
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; writing by Mark John, editing by Tim Pearce)