By Sebastian Moffett
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU leaders said on Friday the crisis in Mali, where Islamists have seized control of much of the north of the country, was an "immediate threat" to Europe, and threatened to impose sanctions on the armed militia there.
It was the first time EU heads of state and government had pronounced collectively on the crisis, which broke out in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to take control of the north. Islamists, some allied with al Qaeda, have since hijacked their revolt.
"This situation poses an immediate threat to the Sahel region as well as to West and North Africa and to Europe," EU leaders said in a statement after a summit in Brussels on Friday.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said this week "terrorists and drug traffickers" might have a free hand in Mali unless the government regained control.
Regional leaders and international organizations were meeting on Friday in Mali's capital Bamako to discuss whether the Islamists should be dislodged by military intervention or a more gradual political approach.
The United Nations Security Council last week gave African leaders 45 days to draw up a plan for military intervention to retake control of the north.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, has six hostages held by the Islamists, and has been pushing hard for military action.
French President Francois Hollande is said to believe there is a risk that al Qaeda's North African arm, AQIM, is cementing its base in the West African state, creating a launch pad for an attack on French soil.
Diplomatic and security sources say there is "credible" evidence of planned attacks following botched bombings by AQIM at French embassies in Mali and Mauritania.
However, diplomats say that foreign military intervention in Mali is months away.
The European Union will step up its humanitarian response to the crisis, and examine support for the envisaged international military force, said Friday's statement by the European Council, which represents EU member states.
"The EU will maintain the option to adopt targeted restrictive measures against those involved in the armed groups in northern Mali and those hindering the return to constitutional order," the statement said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)