Tensions are escalating in the west African nation of Mali as an armed hardline Muslim movement has seized control of another town and says that it has executed an Algerian diplomat.

"We have been working to see if we can get the appropriate UN mandate to deal with the situation there .… In the experience of ECOWAS, this is not a classical situation of a crisis that we had had with member states. We have had situations in Liberia and Sierra Leone but this does not fall into that classical situation."

- Sunny Ugoh, ECOWAS' director of communication

The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known as MUJAO, said on Sunday that the Algerian diplomat, who they had kidnapped during their takeover of the northern town of Gao last April, had been executed after Algerian negotiators refused to agree a deal to release the hostage. He was one of seven diplomats captured during the takeover of Gao.

This announcement came shortly after the group declared that it has also seized another town in the northern part of the country - moving it closer to government-held territory and signalling a possible expansion of its ambitions.

Taking advantage of Mali's weakened army, MUJAO overran the city of Douentza, which had been held by a local militia allied to the government. Douentza is only 190km from Mopti, which marks the line of control for the Malian government.

The instability began last March when soldiers led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo defected from the army and staged a coup. Sanogo promised to crush the rebels in the north, but within a few weeks the entire region of northern Mali fell to the separatist Tuaregs. The Tuaregs say they will only attack the capital, Bamako, if they are provoked.

A plan by west Africa's regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to launch a military offensive against the rebels was postponed, leaving a vast part of Mali under the control of a loose umbrella of rebels divided over the future of the north.

"Ninety per cent of the population are Muslim and we are soft and we are moderate and those people want to come like some extremist thing. This is not Mali. This is a peaceful county and Mali was one of the examples in West Africa for democracy."

- Hidrissa Cherif Haidara, a member of the Mali Community Council in the UK

The secular Tuaregs have declared the north an independent state, which they have named Azawad. While armed groups like Ansar Dine, MUJAO and al-Qaeda insist that their aim is mainly to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law in Mali.

So, is military intervention necessary in Mali and, if so, by whom?

Joining Inside Story, with presenter Teymoor Nabili, to discuss this are guests: Hidrissa Cherif Haidara, a member of the Mali Community Council in the UK; Sylvain Touati, a fellow at the Africa Programmes at Fikra - a think tank based in Doha and the French Institute for International Relations in Paris; and Sunny Ugoh, the director of communications at ECOWAS.

"In Mali, the army did not have the opportunity to disarm the [French-armed] Tuareg fighters coming back from Libya .... In France some commentators and analysts say this [the unrest in Mali] is a direct consequence of the French intervention in Libya. So you have to understand that the French government is really worried not to be seen as a new factor of instability in Mali."

Sylvain Touati, a fellow at Fikra

Source: Al Jazeera