France is insisting on "rapid" military intervention in Mali. Its unmanned drones have reportedly been scouring the desert, officially seeking the whereabouts of six French hostages believed to be held by al-Qaida.
The US also supports intervention, though its priority is to secure its growing interests in the Sahel region.
African countries are divided. They have no clear alternative as to how to restore Mali's territorial integrity and political sovereignty, currently disjointed by the Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants in the north and the factionalised army in the south.
The current crisis in Mali is merely the latest manifestation of an old struggle. It goes back much earlier than French officials in particular would wish to recall.
There's a lot of bad blood between the various forces fighting for control - but there is also acrimony between Mali and France, which conquered the country in 1898 and called it French Sudan.
After decades of bitter struggle Mali achieved its independence in 1960 under a socialist government led by President Modibo Keita, who tried to take the country out of French influence.
In 1968 Keita was ousted by General Moussa Traore. In 1977 he died in a lonely prison cell.
Turmoil defined Mali for many years afterwards. But it achieved a level of stability after Traore was overthrown in 1992. At the time it was believed that Mali was fast becoming a model for democracy for west Africa.
France has never ceased trying to maintain influence over Mali - that's what prompted it to cancel over a third of the country's debt in 2002. But over recent years the United States has begun to take an interest too.
As ever the all-purpose excuse of al-Qaida came in handy for justifying US involvement. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was used to rationalise the establishment of US Africa Command (Africom), set up in 2008 to manage US military interests across the entire continent with the exception of Egypt. The US State Department said Africom would help "establish good governance across the continent."
The people of Mali are suffering the consequences of the conflict, which reflects a convoluted mix of foreign agendas, extremist ideologies and the real grievances of Malian tribes in the north and west.
The south, where the government holds sway, is hardly an oasis of stability. The most dominant faction in the army is led by the US-trained Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure back in March.
It remains unclear who Sanogo's backers are. France and the US have been relatively tolerant of his political transgressions and violent conduct.
While the African Union reacted angrily to the coup, suspending Mali's membership, Western powers were less hostile.
Regional pressure led Sanogo to hand over power to a civilian government under President Dioncounda Traore - at least in name. In fact the captain remains in charge. In May his junta struck again as pro-Sanogo mobs almost beat Traore to death.
Empowered by the lack of any decisive response to his conduct Sanogo has continued to play political games. A short-lived national unity government under prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was toppled when Diarra was arrested by Sanogo's men. He was then forced to concede power and install a little known government administrator as his successor.
The captain's political show continues. The west African regional grouping Ecowas and the African Union remain focused on what they see as the more urgent priority - ending the territorial disintegration of Mali - meaning that we're unlikely to have heard the last of Sanogo.
The conflict they see as more significant - and which France says requires military intervention - is constantly changing.
Undoubtedly the escalation of violence is linked to Nato's war against Libya last year. Persecuted Tuaregs had found support in Muammar Gadaffi's Libya. When dispersed or driven out by the rebel militias and the new regime many returned to their country.
On the other side of that war were a plethora of Islamist militant groups, many of which have also since dispersed to other countries including Mali.
And both sides had access to vast stocks of advanced weaponry made available by the implosion of the Libyan state.
Fighting in the north kicked off shortly after that war ended, in January 2012. Sanogo's coup in March gave the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) a pretext to declare independence. It then had a succession of quick military victories, leading to the capture of Gao and other major towns.
Initially various Islamist groups fought alongside the MNLA, seizing cities which they then held hostage to their own ideologies.
The alliance didn't last long. One group, Ansar al-Din, associated itself with the Tuaregs until it had secured control of Timbuktu before declaring war "against independence and "for Islam."
From September the Islamists have been advancing on strategic areas in the centre and south-west of the country.
In such a situation it isn't surprising that many regional countries favour military intervention in the country.
But the stability of west Africa is at stake, and the chances of a political solution are all but gone.
The growing chaos could benefit interventionist states from outside the region - France and the US. A new drawn-out "war on terror" would justify an ever-escalating involvement in west Africa and more meddling in the affairs of Ecowas countries.
A scramble for Africa is under way - it was kicked off a few years ago when the US woke up to growing Chinese influence, and it has gathered steam with the unrest in north Africa caused by the so-called Arab Spring.
Opportunities now abound for those ready to stake their claims to this long-exploited region.
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