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PARIS/DAKAR (Reuters) - Foreign powers will probably intervene militarily in Mali after al-Qaeda-linked militants took control of territory in the north of the West African country, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday.
Regional and Western governments have compared the situation in Mali to Afghanistan, as a mix of local and foreign Islamists have hijacked a rebellion initially launched in January by secular Tuareg separatist rebels.
"In the north, at one moment or another there will probably be the use of force," Fabius said, noting that intervention would be African-led but supported by international forces.
After chasing the secular MNLA rebels from their positions, Islamist fighters have consolidated their grip now controlling two-thirds of Mali's desert north, which includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. They have carried out a wave of attacks on ancient Sufi shrines, some of which were classified world heritage sites by UNESCO.
The U.N. Security Council on July 5 endorsed West African political efforts to end unrest in Mali but stopped short of backing military intervention in the West African state until precise details were outlined.
The French-drafted resolution did not give 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.
"It's a serious situation because it is the first time terrorists have taken root in important cities and could be in a situation to implant themselves in an entire country," Fabius told members of the diplomatic press in Paris.
West African leaders are still struggling to get Mali's squabbling politicians to form a national unity government that would then request U.N. backing for troops from the ECOWAS regional bloc in order to help in the fight against groups occupying the north.
"They (Islamists) have a lot of money, heavy weapons, they are ready to die and their main enemy is France," Fabius said. "You have this risk ... and threat that what is happening in northern Mali can happen in other areas," he said. "There is a type of franchising of these terrorists in other areas."
Fabius said Paris would not lead a military intervention since its colonial past in the country would complicate matters.
Al Qaeda's North African arm (AQIM) holds six French hostages in the Sahel also complicating France's role in any future intervention. Fabius said the hostages were still alive, although they had been separated.
The European Union and international powers such as the United States were ready to provide support and training if necessary, he added.
Mali Justice Minister Malick Coulibaly had said on Tuesday that Bamako planned to ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate killings, rapes, torture, and attacks on cultural sites in its rebel-controlled north.
Coulibaly did not say when the request would be lodged, but RFI, the French radio station that interviewed him, said a Malian government delegation would go to The Hague-based court to file the request in the coming days.
"Given that the north of Mali is not under the control of the legitimate authorities, we think it is right to submit the case to the court in order to avoid impunity," Coulibaly said.
A spokeswoman for the ICC prosecutor's office was unable to confirm whether it had received a communication from Mali.
In April, the ICC said it was considering investigating rapes and killings that had been committed since fighting erupted in Mali's desert north in January.
There is no accurate toll for the fighting, but over 300,000 people have been forced from their homes with concerns growing of a massive humanitarian crisis in the region.
Editing by Diana Abdallah