The UN Security Council on Friday approved a resolution that presses West African nations to speed up preparations for an international military intervention aimed at reconquering northern Mali.
The text unanimously approved by the council also urges authorities in Bamako and representatives of "Malian rebel groups" controlling the north to "engage, as soon as possible, in a credible negotiation process."
The council members warned that the process should be undertaken with a view toward "a sustainable political solution, mindful of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Mali."
In March, military putschists seized power in the capital Bamako, ousting President Amadou Toumani Toure, only to see the north and east fall to Tuareg rebels and militias linked to Al-Qaeda.
"There is a feeling that it is a dire situation in northern Mali and we need prompt action," said Guatemala's envoy to the United Nations, Gert Rosenthal, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month.
"But it is a very complex operation... this will be the first step towards something more robust, I hope."
The council asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to work with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union in order to submit to the council within 45 days "detailed and actionable recommendations" in preparation for the deployment of an international military force in Mali.
A first draft of the resolution called for a 30-day timetable, but 45 days was later deemed to be more realistic.
The plan should include "means and modalities of the envisaged deployment, in particular the concept of operations," personnel needed and a cost estimate, said the text, which was mainly drafted by France.
The UN is to provide "military and security planners" to ECOWAS and the African Union to assist with the preparations, the resolution said.
After details for military intervention are submitted, the 15-member council would still have to pass a second resolution to give the green light to the deployment. That is not expected to happen before the end of the year.
French President Francois Hollande stressed the resolution was not just about facilitating a military intervention, but had a political component as well, with armed groups urged to halt attacks and join reconciliation efforts.
"The international community as a whole will stand side-by-side with Mali in this effort" to reconquer the north, Hollande said in a statement issued while the French leader was in Senegal.
"It is now up to the Africans, through the work of ECOWAS and the African Union, to finalize their response to the Malian government's call for help."
The US State Department welcomed the adoption of the resolution, with spokeswoman Victoria Nuland calling it a "comprehensive approach to the overlapping governance, security and humanitarian crises affecting Mali."
In the resolution, the council stated its "readiness' to respond to Mali's requests, while calling for "coordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support" to Mali's armed forces.
The country's military has been devastated by the coup and the quick takeover of the north.
The European Union hopes to quickly dispatch 150 military trainers to Mali. The issue will be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday.
One diplomat said the goal now is to "maintain momentum and mobilize the international community."
For some six months now, the Security Council has called in vain for details on the intervention, including its objectives and logistical needs.
Only a few of Mali's neighbors have offered firm commitments to participate in such a force, which could eventually have a total of 3,000 personnel.
The council's resolution also condemns human rights abuses committed in the north and "calls upon Malian rebel groups to cut off all ties to terrorist organizations," especially Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
It urges the transitional authorities in Bamako to speed up efforts to restore "constitutional order."
"Strengthening democratic institutions must be at the heart of combating extremism and political upheaval," said Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman.
A meeting is set for October 19 in Bamako with representatives from ECOWAS, the AU, the EU and the UN in an attempt to develop a "coherent strategy," a diplomat said. France has promised logistical help for the operation.
Mali's UN envoy Oumar Daou promised the council Bamako's full cooperation and underlined the importance and urgency of the need for a military intervention.
Ivory Coast's UN ambassador, Youssoufou Bamba, said ECOWAS welcomed the "timely" resolution as a precursor to "concrete action."