Mali moved a step closer to being broken in two on Sunday when al-Qaeda-linked Islamists and Tuareg rebels declared the nation's north an independent country to be ruled according to sharia law.
The announcement, from Ansar Dine and the Tuareg MNLA group, came as the country's interim president remained in a Paris hotel recovering from an assault in his private office last week.
Diplomats and Mali's neighbours fear that the country, once a beacon for democratic stability in West Africa, is poised to plunge further into crisis following a coup two months ago.
The "declaration of independence" for the northern half of Mali, Africa's sixth-largest country, came late on Saturday.
Timbuktu, the history trading centre and seat of Tuareg learning, now lies in the disputed territory, to be known as Azawad, which is almost the size of France.
"The two movements have created the transitional council of the Islamic state of Azawad," the groups, which have been controlling the area for the past two months, said in their "protocol agreement".
"We are all in favour of the independence of Azawad ... We all accept Islam as the religion," they said, adding that Islam would also be the main source of law.
In Gao, a major town in the north where leaders of the two movements have been holding talks, the sealing of the deal was greeted by the sound of guns being fired into the air.
The rebel army is made up largely of Tuaregs, Saharan tribespeople who have been battling for independence from southern Mali since the nation's independence from France in 1960.
Malian mercenaries returning from Libya after the death of Col Gaddafi strengthened the MNLA's leadership, swelled its infantry ranks and boosted its arsenal.
The rebels' lightning advance across Mali's north was launched as middle-ranking officers from the national army staged a coup in Bamako on March 22, creating chaos in the capital, far to the south.
Islamist fighters, grouped together as Ansar Dine, which has links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, then took the chance of the power vacuum also to seize territory.
The country's interim administration immediately rejected the independence declaration.
Islamists declare north Mali an independent state governed by sharia
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The Czech Republic is observing events with concern and hopes that the people of Mali end up with a democratically elected government.
Iran recognises the right of the people of Azawad to self determination, but hopes this can be conducted in peaceful manner.
Indonesia hopes that democracy can be restored to Mali very soon, and that the Azawad independence movement conducts themselves peacefully.
The MHoC is watching the events in Mali closely.
Namibia urges the AU to help bring all parties in Mali to the negotiation table to help solve the issues of sovereignty very soon.
Switzerland is observing these events and hopefully Democracy will restore itself and will at least be compatible with Sharia Law.
Qatar is observing these events closely and hopes that Mali ends up with the result that they want.
Argentina hopes that the Democracy restores itself and be compatible with Sharia Law for a peaceful future of the citizens of Mali.
Nigeria is monitoring the situation with obvious great interest.
Australia is concerned about the goings on in Mali and hopes for a swift and peaceful conclusion to this incident.
Tunisia is concerned that groups such as Al Qaeda appear to be behind this breakaway, and urges for diplomatic talks and a swift solution to these 'difficulties'
We, the Republic of Mali, denounce the intentions of both Ansar Dine and the MNLA, and we reject the existence of a state in the Malian region of Azawad. We would like to remind the internationally community of our accepted territory, and call on the rest of the world to join us in denying these insurgents the right to legitimise any rebellion against the unified central government of Mali. The state of Mali would like to express its desire for Niger, Libya, Algeria and Burkina Faso to be watchful for similar acts of outright insurgency.
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