By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council expressed grave concern on Friday at the "increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements" in northern Mali, including al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, and urged all rebel groups to cut ties with the Islamist extremists.
The 15-member Security Council also noted an appeal by West Africa's regional body for targeted sanctions to be adopted in a bid to help end Mali's crisis and said it would consider further measures if necessary.
Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the impoverished, landlocked country.
Islamist groups, some allied with al Qaeda, then hijacked the rebellion in the north to impose sharia law.
The Security Council said in a statement it was gravely concerned "about the continuing deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in the North of Mali and the increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements including Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and affiliated groups."
The council urged "all Malian rebel groups to cut off all ties to AQIM and affiliated groups."
It also expressed "grave concern about the violations of human rights perpetrated by rebel and extremist groups in the North of Mali."
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is gearing up for a tough fight to help Mali's government forces reclaim the north, telling the Security Council on Monday it needs major military equipment including fighter jets.
ECOWAS and the African Union need a Security Council mandate to send in troops. In June the council asked them to clearly spell out the objectives of such an operation and how it would be carried out.
The council expressed in Friday's statement a "readiness to consider a feasible and actionable proposal from ECOWAS."
Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, made a formal request to ECOWAS this month for military assistance to help retake the country's north.
ECOWAS has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, including the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The conflict in Mali has exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security 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 drought has pushed millions to the brink of starvation.
A high-level meeting on the situation in the Sahel is due to be held next week during the U.N. General Assembly.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Xavier Briand)