By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council said on Wednesday it was worried by al Qaeda's presence in Mali and warned that Islamist extremists could further weaken security in the West African country where a military coup last month has bolstered a separatist rebellion.
In its third statement since the March 22 coup by renegade soldiers angry at the Mali government's failure to stamp out the rebellion in the north of the country, the 15-nation Security Council again called for the restoration of constitutional rule.
The council also threw its support behind efforts by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore order in Mali. U.N. political affairs chief Lynn Pascoe told the council on Tuesday that ECOWAS had placed some 3,000 troops on standby to deal with the coup and rebellion in Mali.
Pascoe also said the situation in Mali had "taken a turn for the worse over the course of the past several days," Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters on Tuesday. Rice is president of the Security Council for April.
In its statement Wednesday, the council said it "calls upon the rebels to immediately cease all violence and urges all parties in Mali to seek a peaceful solution through appropriate political dialogue. The council stresses the importance of the safety of civilians and of the respect of human rights."
While the coup leaders' intention was to give the army more clout to tackle the nascent revolt of Tuareg rebels, their power grab triggered a rebel sweep through a northern swathe of the country that includes the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.
"The Security Council strongly condemns the continued attacks, looting and seizure of territory carried out by rebel groups in the north of Mali and demands an immediate cessation of hostilities," it said.
IMPOSING SHARIA LAW
The Tuareg rebels, who want a northern homeland, have also been joined by Islamists bent on imposing Islamic sharia law across the whole of the moderate Muslim state.
"The council is alarmed by the presence in the region of the terrorist group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which could lead to a further destabilization of the security situation," it said.
AQIM is a mostly autonomous wing that sprung from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007. The group, believed to number a few hundred members, has taken advantage of weak governance and poverty to mount sporadic attacks on local armies and kidnap Westerners, earning millions of dollars in ransoms.
The conflict in Mali has also exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian situation in the turbulent Sahel region - a belt of land spanning nearly a dozen of the world's poorest countries on the southern rim of the Sahara - where millions of people are on the brink of starvation due to drought.
Pascoe told the Security Council that there were some 90,000 internally displaced people in Mali and another 130,000 people had fled the country.
The Council statement called "on all parties in Mali to allow timely, safe and unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to civilians in need."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)