Armed men have stormed the Algerian consulate in northeastern Mali and abducted seven diplomats amid fears Al Qaeda-linked fighters are turning the country into a rogue state and fuelling a humanitarian crisis.

Alarmed by the sudden collapse of the west African nation, which has split into a rebel-controlled north and junta-controlled south in two weeks since a coup, the international community grappled for a response and a place to lay the blame.

Algeria's foreign ministry said an unidentified group had attacked its consulate in the town of Gao on Thursday and kidnapped the consul and six staff members.

Witnesses told AFP the raiders hoisted the black Salafist flag that has been the emblem of Islamist rebels who have overrun Timbuktu and other northern cities.

"Everything necessary will be done to ensure the safe and sound return of our nationals," the ministry said.

Human catastrophe

Amnesty International warned on Thursday that Mali's north faces a humanitarian catastrophe after rebels looted food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing shortages.

The dire situation stems from a March 22 coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo and a small group of low-ranking soldiers who ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before he was due to step down.

In what some have dubbed "an accidental coup", the troops justified their takeover by arguing Toure's regime had failed to tackle the Tuareg uprising.

But rebels exploited the power vacuum and swept Mali's north.

The junta, which at times told the Malian army not to resist the invasion, on Thursday called on northern Mali residents to resist the "invaders" themselves.

In the capital Bamako on Thursday, regional mediator Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said an announcement in "the right direction" could be expected soon from coup leader Sanogo, adding he had "the right attitude."

Though the envoy was optimistic sanctions could be lifted "very soon", west African military chiefs discussed the possible deployment of a 2,000-strong force into a section of Mali the size of France now in Tuareg separatist and Islamist hands.

Source: Agencies