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BAMAKO (Reuters) - An agreement between northern Mali's MNLA Tuareg rebels and the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group Ansar Dine to create an Islamic state in the Azawad desert has hit trouble over how strictly to impose sharia, Islamic law, MNLA sources said on Tuesday.
The separatist MNLA wants a moderate form of sharia, while Ansar Dine would like to impose a more hardline version, using punishments such as the amputation of hands and heads for certain crimes, the sources said.
The West African group ECOWAS said it rejected the idea of a separate Islamic state in northern Mali, and the new French president urged African leaders to ask the U.N. Security Council to create a framework for restoring stability to the region.
"We want sharia similar to that in Mauritania or even Egypt. This point must be clarified," Ibrahim Ag Assaleh, an MNLA official in the northern city of Gao, told Reuters by telephone.
He said MNLA leader Iyad Ag Ghali was on his way to Gao for talks with Ansar Dine leaders to salvage the pact, which was signed by representatives of the two groups last week.
A second MNLA source confirmed that a disagreement had emerged, centred on what form of sharia to impose. "The strict application of sharia, for example by cutting off hands, we don't agree with," the second source said.
An Ansar Dine official was not available, but the group has said it wants to impose a strict version of sharia in Mali and would be willing to cut off hands and heads if the Koran required it.
Mali, once regarded as a fine example of African democracy, collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president in March, leaving a power vacuum in the north that enabled rebels to take control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
A regionally backed transitional government has been set up in Bamako to organise new presidential elections within a year, though supporters of the ruling military junta oppose the plan.
The regional bloc ECOWAS said on Tuesday it rejected the rebels' attempt to create an Islamic state in northern Mali.
"ECOWAS strongly condemns this opportunistic move, which will only worsen the plight of the populations already suffering atrocities and deprivation in the occupied Malian territory, and further threaten regional peace and security," it said.
French President Francois Hollande urged African leaders to appeal to the United Nations Security Council to tackle the worsening crisis in Mali.
"What we want is that these institutions (African Union, ECOWAS) go to the U.N. Security Council so that it finds a framework that allows stability to be restored in Mali and the wider Sahel," Hollande said after meeting Benin's president, Yayi Boni, who currently heads the African Union.
Asked whether France, the former colonial ruler, would be ready to help restore stability in Mali through military intervention, Hollande said Paris would abide by Security Council resolutions and would be ready to help if asked to.
He said he had consulted Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who heads ECOWAS, on Tuesday morning and told him he wanted the regional institutions to take the issue to the Security Council "as soon as possible."
"We don't want to interfere but we are aware of our responsibilities," Hollande said, adding that six French nationals were still being held in the Sahel by al Qaeda's north African wing.
Reporting by Adama Diarra and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, David Lewis in Dakar and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Richard Valdmanis, editing by Tim Pearce