The UN Security Council has asked West African nations to draw up plans for a military mission to re-establish control of the north. Tuareg rebels and Islamists seized the region after a botched coup earlier this year.
The resolution, approved in a unanimous vote by the 15-member Security Council on Friday, calls for a plan within the next 45 days.
The resolution said that the plan should include details about the "means and modalities of the envisaged deployment, in particular the concept of operations," as well as an estimated number of personnel needed and overall cost.
Drafted mainly by France, the resolution also said that the UN would provide "military and security planners" to assist the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union in preparations for the deployment.
Still, the document urges the government and representatives of "Malian rebel groups" to "engage, as soon as possible, in a credible negotiation process."
Tuareg rebels and Islamist militias - some with links to the al Qaeda terror network - swiftly seized control of northern Mali back in March, after a coup by a group of soldiers toppled former president Amadou Toumani Toure. Ironically, the soldiers behind the coup said they had launched the action due to their displeasure with the way the government was handling the Tuareg rebellion.
International pressure led to an agreement under which the coup leader ceded power to Dioncounda Traore, who became interim president.
Following the vote, Guatemala's UN envoy, Gert Rosenthal, who holds the Security Council's rotating presidency this month, said there was general agreement that swift action was needed in Mali.
"But it is a very complex operation," he told reporters at UN headquarters in New York. "This will be the first step towards something more robust, I hope."
Friday's vote did not actually authorize military action in Mali - the Security Council would have to pass a second resolution to do so.
pfd/ch (Reuters, AFP, dpa)