BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg-led separatist rebels announced the end of their fight to create an "Azawad" state on the edge of the Sahara on Thursday after sweeping across northern Mali during a political crisis after a coup.
The ceasefire came ahead of a meeting of army chiefs from West Africa's ECOWAS bloc, which will try and hammer out a plan for military intervention in Mali, which experts fear has become a security vacuum for al Qaeda cells and smugglers to exploit.
West African governments are concerned about the lawless and sparsely populated desert north but have also imposed sanctions on the junta that seized power from an elected civilian government in the capital Bamako.
Taking advantage of chaos following a March 22 coup, rebels of the Azawad National Liberation Movement, battling alongside Islamist militants who want to impose Islamic law, swept through Mali's north. The army was pushed from Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the northern regions the MNLA says will form the new state.
The group declared a unilateral ceasefire from midnight on Thursday, according to its website www.mnlamov.net.
The statement asked the international community to protect "Azawad", but African nations and world bodies have unanimously rejected the idea of Mali's north seceding.
Former colonial power France reiterated its position that there was no military solution to the rebellion and said there was a clear distinction between the MNLA and Ansar Dine Islamists, who had been "infiltrated" by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM. [ID:nL6E8F56YU]
Ansar Dine, the Islamist force that the MNLA has operated with, has said it wants to impose sharia across all of Mali and so far not put any limits on how far it will advance.
Malian government forces are in disarray after the coup sparked a collapse as rebels advanced.
Junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo has so far shrugged off trade, diplomatic and financial sanctions imposed by Mali's neighbours and Western powers wanting a return to civilian rule.
But a conference he had called for Thursday to end the political crisis was put on ice after political parties rejected the idea, adding to the political uncertainty.
West African countries are discussing an intervention force for Mali, despite the obvious practical difficulties to any such intervention in one of the world's poorest regions.
At the meeting of regional army chiefs, Ivory Coast acting Defence Minister Paul Koffi Koffi said the force had to find ways to "secure the return to constitutional rule and, on the other hand, stop the rebel advance."
After announcing the halt to their advance, the rebels are still well over 500 km (300 miles) from the capital Bamako
But the MNLA has an uneasy relationship with Ansar Dine, which is potentially stronger militarily, and analysts say the two groups could soon clash due to conflicting aims.
The rebellion has tapped into deep-rooted frustrations over the lack of development in the north and was boosted by arms and men returning from Libya's conflict and Paris and other nations have called for talks over the issue.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said there could be no talks with Islamists as AQIM had targeted foreigners in the zone. "I don't see how we could have dialogue with AQIM whose objective is to kill our citizens," he added. Six French citizens are currently being held by AQIM in the Sahara.
Mali's rebellion has displaced over 200,000 people, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis in the region, where millions are in need of food relief after yet another year of poor rain meant crops failed.
Additional reporting by John Irish and Catherine Bremer in Paris; Ange Aboa in Abidjan; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Matthew Tostevin