UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council condemned on Tuesday the arrest of Mali's prime minister by members of the army, which led to his resignation and complicates international efforts to push out Islamist extremists in the country's north.
Mali Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was arrested and forced to resign on Tuesday by soldiers who staged a coup in March, underscoring the military's continuing grip despite giving way to a civilian president and prime minister in April under international pressure.
"The members of the Security Council express their readiness to consider appropriate measures, including targeted sanctions, against those who prevent the restoration of the constitutional order and take actions that undermine stability in Mali," the 15-member council said in a statement.
The council has previously threatened sanctions in a bid to quell the crisis in Mali. Last week the council's al Qaeda sanctions committee added the Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa - or MUJAO, which is active in northern Mali and linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb - to its blacklist.
Once a beacon of democracy in West Africa, Mali has been mired in crisis since the coup, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters took advantage of the chaos to seize the northern two-thirds of the arid nation.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was troubled by the circumstances leading to the resignation of Mali's prime minister, Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"The secretary-general calls again for a cessation of military interference in politics and urges the Malian leadership to resolve any issues through peaceful means," Nesirky said in a statement.
Ban recommended last month that the Security Council approve an African Union military operation to take back northern Mali, contingent on political, human rights, training and operational benchmarks being met.
"The members of the Security Council stress their commitment to authorizing as soon as possible the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission in Mali," the council said in Tuesday's statement.
But the crisis has sparked a showdown between the United States and France over the issue.
France has circulated a draft resolution to approve such a mission, but the United States has countered with a proposal that the operation be split into two missions that would be mandated separately by the 15-member council, diplomats said.
The United States would like the Security Council to first approve a mission focused on training the Malian army and pursuing a political process before then mandating an international military intervention to retake the north of Mali from the extremists, diplomats said.
France, which has seven nationals held hostage in the desert region, opposes the idea of mandating two missions and wants the council to adopt a single resolution this month, diplomats said.
Diplomats said the United States believes ECOWAS cannot provide appropriately-trained troops to take on the battle-hardened militants in a desert combat zone.
ECOWAS has agreed to commit the 3,300 troops for an international force in Mali. The troops would mostly come from Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso, but other African countries like Chad may contribute troops as well. The European Union is expected to help with the training.
But Ban did not recommend that the council approve U.N. financial support for an initial combat mission in northern Mali. The African Union has said it would need "a U.N. support package funded through assessed contributions to ensure sustained and predictable support to the mission."
Ban's special envoy for the Sahel, former Italian Prime Minister Romani Prodi, and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous have said that any military action in northern Mali was unlikely to happen before September or October next year.
Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Cynthia Osterman