Paris - French President Francois Hollande warned on Monday there was a risk of "terrorist" groups setting up in northern Mali and said France would back African bodies seeking a UN mandate to intervene.
"There is a threat of terrorist groups setting up in northern Mali. There is outside intervention that is destabilising Mali and setting up groups whose vocation goes well beyond Mali, in Africa and perhaps beyond," Hollande said.
He said that it was up to the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to take the lead and seek UN Security Council backing.
"This threat exists, it's for the Africans to avert it, for them to decide. Ecowas is at once the judicial instrument for that and the possible military instrument," Hollande told journalists.
"It's for the Africans to go to the Security Council, we will back the resolution that will be put forward by Ecowas," he said.
"If an intervention is decided upon, it's for the Africans to lead it, France like other powers putting themselves at the service of the United Nations."
Hollande was speaking following talks in Paris with Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, who said he was ready to go to war to restore Mali's territorial integrity after rival groups sought to set up a breakaway state there.
Issoufou, whose country shares a long and porous desert border with Mali, himself warned last week that jihadi fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan were training Islamist groups there as world powers mull armed intervention.
"I confirm this information, the situation is worrying," Issoufou said.
"This is a threat not only for the region but also for the world," he said, confirming also that Ecowas and the African Union would seek a UN Security Council resolution but without mentioning a timetable.
Mali, once considered a democratic success story in western Africa, has plunged into chaos since the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya last year scattered mercenaries and weapons across the Sahel.
Tuareg rebels rekindled their decades-old struggle for independence in January and conquered the entire northern half of Mali virtually unopposed in March, after renegade soldiers who accused then-president Amadou Toumani Toure of failing to do enough to fight the rebellion toppled his regime.
The Tuareg rebels fought alongside a previously unknown Islamist group called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), which is believed to be backed by al-Qaeda's north African branch.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) has been active for years in northern Mali, where it has launched attacks against government army positions, kidnapped foreigners and allegedly benefitted from drug running.
Government troops have no control over Mali's north, a territory larger than France, heightening fears in the region and beyond that the landlocked country could become a new global haven for Al-Qaeda.