Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has called for sanctions against fighters who have taken over northern Mali.
The UN chief asked the Security Council on Wednesday to consider financial and travel sanctions against rebels and fighters linked to radical Islamist groups, including several who are allied with al-Qaeda.
Ban said that the 15-member council should "give serious consideration to the imposition of targeted travel and financial sanctions against individuals or groups in Mali engaged in terrorist, religious extremist or criminal activities".
He also termed the destruction of historically significant shrines in Timbuktu by Ansar Dine, an al-Qaeda-linked group, a "callous" act.
A March 22 military coup in the West African country set off a chain of events which led to Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine taking over most of northern Mali.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) refused to recognise the new coup leader and forced him to cede power to a transition government.
It has now proposed sending an intervention force to Mali to help the transitional government, and has asked for UN backing.
The UN chief told the meeting that Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso's foreign minister and an ECOWAS mediator, met with leaders of Ansar Dine in Mali on Tuesday "and requested that they cut ties to terrorist movements before any peace talk could begin".
He added that "no meaningful dialogue has commenced between the government of Mali and any of the groups in the north".
Ban also warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Mali, where the UN says that over 250,000 people have fled and 174,000 have been internally displaced since the coup.
Alessandra Giuffrida, an anthropologist from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, said that there was high potential for the conflict to be resolved peacefully and that conflict would be devastating for the entire Sahel region.
"If there is a decision to go to war, the main victims will be the women and children."
"If ECOWAS were to send its troops into northern Mali, it would be a catastrophe because they are not trained for the terrain," she said.
Military intervention debated
An ECOWAS envoy, meanwhile, said that northern Mali was in danger of becoming a safe haven for "terrorist groups" unless the international community intervened.
"The objective of the terrorist groups and transnational organised criminals is clear: It is to create a safe haven and a coordinating centre in the north of Mali for continental terrorist networks," Salamatu Hussaini Suleiman, ECOWAS commissioner for political affairs, told the UNSC meeting in New York.
Suleiman named al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Nigerian radical group Boko Haram and the Somali extremist group al-Shabab as being among those seeking a base in northern Mali.
"If that objective is realised no country in Africa or outside the continent will be safe," Suleiman warned the Security Council.
"We are running out of time in Mali. Every day that we dither and postpone concrete action offers the terrorists and criminal networks yet another opportunity to consolidate, another opportunity to commit atrocious war crimes," she said, renewing calls for UN backing for an intervention force.
The Security Council has said it is ready to approve an African force in Mali but first the Mali government must say it wants the force. ECOWAS and the African Union also have to give more information on the size, means and mandate of the proposed force.
Suleiman said that the West African regional group would finalise its plans in coming days. ECOWAS, African Union, UN, European Union and Mali government officials are to meet in the Malian capital, Bamako, from August 9 to 13, she said.