Rebel forces in northern Mali claimed autonomy for their part of the country following a military coup early this year. Coup leaders had said they were frustrated with the former government's inability to take on northern rebel groups.
The Economic Community of West African States has worked to negotiate an end to the crisis. It said it had a standby force ready to intervene. The bloc has asked for support from the U.N. Security Council to deploy the forces to Mali.
"Any military intervention, unless it is heavily backed by Western countries, will get very messy," Jeremy Keenan, a researcher at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, told the U.N. humanitarian news service IRIN. "The whole of West Africa could become a nightmare."
U.N. authorities have expressed grave concern over destruction of historic sites in Timbuktu at the hands of Islamic rebels. The attacks are being compared to the destruction of the giant Buddhist statues in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, at the hands of the Taliban in 2001.
Paul Melly, an associate fellow at Chatham House, told IRIN the situation in Mali was a threat to the region.
"Some of the radical Islamist rebel groups now in Mali want to promote Shariah (law) across the Sahel," he said.