West African presidents met Saturday with Malian civil leaders in a bid to secure a national unity government that can tackle a power grab by Islamist militants in the country's desert north.
However, Mali's president and prime minister were not there, northern representatives walked out, and supporters of the military coup that threw Mali into turmoil in March staged a counter demonstration.
Mali, once a beacon of democracy in west Africa, was thrown into chaos by the March 22 coup, which allowed ethnic Tuareg separatists and Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists to sweep across northern Mali in a rapid offensive.
The Islamists have since chased the Tuareg out of key towns, imposed sharia law, and last week destroyed ancient Muslim shrines they deemed un-Islamic in the UN world heritage-listed desert city of Timbuktu.
Regional body the Economic Community of West African States has sought to help restore political stability in Mali and offered to send an intervention force of 3,300 troops into the northern conflict zone.
The ECOWAS top mediator, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaore, opened the talks Saturday in his capital Ouagadougou with five other regional heads of state.
Compaore told the meeting of politicians, religious and trade union leaders that the main aim was a consensus government that could "take urgent steps to confront the terrorist peril in the north of the country".
ECOWAS chairman Alassane Ouattara, the president of Ivory Coast, told the meeting also attended by leaders of Niger, Togo, Benin and Nigeria, that "we cannot tolerate the partition of a brother country".
The meeting took place in the absence of Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore, who has been receiving medical treatment in Paris since he was attacked by a mob in his office in May.
Also absent was Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra, whose relations with ECOWAS have been strained as the regional grouping has been searching for what it has called a more inclusive government in Mali.
Representatives from Mali's north walked out just before the opening of the meeting, for unknown reasons.
Mali's renegade soldiers, who toppled the elected president on March 22, later agreed under intense regional and international pressure to hand power back to a civilian administration but have retained considerable influence.
The Popular Movement of March 22, which supports the coup, staged a protest rally in Bamako of "patriotic" groups against the ECOWAS meeting. Organisers said 500 rallied at a stadium while police put the figure at 250.
"This meeting is a protest against the meeting organized by ECOWAS," a rally organiser, Nouhoum Keita, told AFP, stressing that the people of Mali alone must create a national unity government.
Keita said a national convention would be held July 14-16.
At the ECOWAS meeting, meanwhile, Ouattara urged Traore to return quickly to Bamako and called for a broad-based government with an action plan for a united, democratic Mali.
The coup -- which soldiers justified by saying they were too poorly equipped to fight the northern rebels -- has left Mali effectively split in two, with Islamist controlling an area larger than France or Texas.
The UN Security Council in a resolution Thursday expressed "deep concern" at the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters, who have been blamed for kidnappings and attacks in several countries.
But the council held back from giving a UN mandate to any west African force that could help Mali's interim government take back the territory.
Guinean President Alpha Conde told AFP on Tuesday that ECOWAS wants a request for military intervention to come from a broader unity government in Mali, an issue that leaders had hoped to settle on Saturday.