By Mathieu Bonkoungou
OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) - West African leaders urged Mali's politicians on Saturday to urgently form a national unity government and request U.N. backing for troops from the ECOWAS regional bloc to help in the fight against al Qaeda-linked militants occupying the north.
Once seen as an example of African democracy, Mali was plunged into chaos in March after troops toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled separatist Tuareg rebels, back by Islamists, to seize nearly two-thirds of the country.
The Salafist Ansar Dine and other militant groups have since hijacked the uprising and now control Mali's desert north, which includes the regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu where historic and religious sites have been destroyed in recent days by the Islamists.
West African leaders have been trying to help Malian political leaders in the capital Bamako to set aside their differences and tackle the security problems in the north, which many fear could become a haven for jihadi activities.
The presidents of Nigeria, Togo, Ivory Coast, Niger, Benin and Burkina Faso said in a statement after a meeting that Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, should "promptly send a request to ECOWAS and the U.N., asking for the deployment of an ECOWAS force to support the Malian army".
African officials have said previously that Nigeria, Niger and Senegal have pledged to provide the core of a 3,270-member force whose mission would be to bolster Mali's fragmented army and stabilize political institutions, and then tackle the rebel-held north if talks failed.
Traore, recovering in Paris from a fractured skull after being attacked by a crowd in his office in May, did not attend the meeting.
"Mali's political leaders should make proposals to the interim president to form a national unity government by July 31, which would be responsible for the implementation of a roadmap out of the crisis," said the West African presidents.
They said security measures should be put in place to guarantee the safe return and protection of Traore.
"We feel that the situation of institutions in Bamako is very fragile, while that in the north of Mali is fast deteriorating," said Blaise Compaore, president of Burkina Faso and host of the meeting.
The six presidents asked the International Criminal Court to investigate possible war crimes in northern Mali.
(Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Ralph Gowling)