NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania -- Hundreds of refugees fleeing an Islamist takeover of northern Mali continue to arrive in this desert nation every day, but exiled officials in the nomadic rebel group pushed out by Islamist fighters linked to Al Qaeda said here over the weekend that, for the moment, they were not the ones to take on the Islamists.
Western nations, notably France, the former colonial power in Mali, continue to suggest that any military resolution to Mali's crisis must come from Africans themselves. But African nations meeting over the weekend in Ethiopia appeared no closer to resolving it, and the Islamists themselves appeared to be tightening their grip of northern Mali, with reports of citizens being whipped and demonstrators repressed in the north.
Some of the leaders of the rebel group -- the Tuareg, desert nomads who in April declared independence for northern Mali, which they call Azawad, but were subsequently dislodged by the Islamists -- have taken refuge here Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. In interviews over the weekend several said that despite considerable military assets and deep knowledge of the tricky desert terrain, the Tuareg would not take up arms against the Islamists unless they received assistance, diplomatic recognition and unspecified guarantees from outside powers.
That position would be a disappointment to Western powers banking on an internal resolution to what is increasingly regarded as an Islamist menace of regional proportions emanating from northern Mali. Some African politicians now refer to the region as "Africanistan." Leading figures in Al Qaeda's regional branch appear openly in northern Mali's towns.
Algeria, regarded by Western diplomats as by far the most competent military power in the region and a country that has seen its share of attacks from Islamist groups, is extremely reluctant to get involved in Mali. The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, was expected in the Algerian capital on Sunday for discussions on Mali. Last week, Mr. Fabius told reporters in Paris that the use of force in northern Mali was likely "sooner or later," though French officials have backed away from any suggestion that France would intervene.
The Tuareg rebel movement -- the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A. -- has been pushed into the background by the fierce ascendancy of the Islamist groups, openly allied with Al Qaeda. In recent armed clashes, the Tuareg fighters have been bested by the Islamists, who are trying to institute a strict version of Islamic law across northern Mali. The Islamists now control the principal towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, despite what the M.N.L.A. says is its superior manpower, with some rebel officials claiming as many as 10,000 men.
A fleeting alliance between some elements of the M.N.L.A. and the Islamists, proclaimed in May, dissolved almost as soon as it was announced. Now leading rebel officials here, resentful that their April independence proclamation was roundly ignored, say that they are not prepared to confront the Islamists without the West's assistance.
"We are not the ones to fight the terrorists all alone," said Hamma Ag Mahmoud, a rebel official residing here. "Today, it is important that the outside powers help us, to even up the balance of power."
M.N.L.A. officials here deny that they have been completely pushed out of northern Mali, saying they still hold rural areas and some smaller towns. Mr. Mahmoud even asserted that the larger towns, now in the hands of the Islamists, were a strategic liability.
Another rebel official, Habaye Ag Ansari, said the rebels would take on the Islamists when "the international community accords a minimum of legitimacy to us." He angrily dismissed the outpouring of international outrage over the Islamists' destruction of religious monuments in Timbuktu recently.
"Nobody has said anything for years about the massacres of Tuaregs, but now the world is shocked that they are destroying a few mud walls that might be sheltering a goat," Mr. Ansari said.
Mr. Ansari, who recently returned from a trip to Islamist-held Gao, said the situation was becoming increasingly difficult for residents there.
"If one accepts to submit oneself, there is no danger," he said. "But, there is deep unease. The young can't play football. There is little health care. Schools are closed. There is nothing. It's not viable."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.