Mali urged the international community to stand by its side to drive out Islamist extremists as the United Nations, African Union and other global players met in Brussels on Tuesday.
"The threat concerns all civilised countries," Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said as he arrived for talks to set a path back to stability and ensure the zone does not become a new breeding ground for terrorists.
"The entire world must gather around us to chase the jihadists from our soil," he said as some 45 delegations from African and European nations, as well as donor and aid groups, gathered for an EU-sponsored meeting of the "Mali support and follow-up group".
"We need to prepare the future," said a senior EU official ahead of the talks. "When a state falls apart it takes time to put it together again, like Humpty Dumpty.
"It's going to take years to achieve the end outcome. But I hope it will only take months to achieve a secure enough environment."
At the top of the immediate agenda will be the dispatch of human rights observers amid fears of rights abuses and reprisals against light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs accused of backing the Islamists.
Talks will also look at financing the deployment of some 8,000 African troops and speeding up plans for a UN mission to eventually take over the baton in Mali.
"We are favourable to this," said Ivorian African Integration Minister Ally Coulibaly, whose country chairs the west African regional body ECOWAS.
Diplomats say there is a clear need for a UN force to police the country, with the ramshackle Malian army incapable of reconquering remote corners of the vast arid nation, and the French unwilling to stay for the long haul.
French jets meanwhile continued to pound targets in the far north in hopes of flattening supply bases for the insurgents who controlled the northern half of Mali for 10 months following a March 2012 coup in Bamako.
In his first address to the European Parliament since taking office last year, French President Francois Hollande urged Europe to fight drug trafficking in the Sahel region.
"The battle against drug trafficking is an essential element if we want to battle terrorism, because terrorism feeds off narcotics trafficking everywhere in the world and notably in west Africa," he said.
Justifying his January 11 decision to send troops to Mali, Hollande said "there was no time to lose (otherwise) terrorism would have conquered all of Mali."
But Europe must conclude from the current chaos that policies practised in the region up until now had failed to prop up local economies and failed to stop the boom in trafficking, he said.
The Brussels talks will consider further support and training for the African force for Mali (AFISMA) as the 27-nation EU firms up a plan to send a 450-strong military training mission.
So far, 16 EU nations, plus Norway, have agreed to contribute troops to the mission due to launch in Bamako on February 12, with training to start in April. But it still lacks sufficient numbers and medical back-up to kick off.
The talks too will look at assisting the return to civilian rule over the entire territory of Mali by helping to organise elections that President Dioncounda Traore has vowed to hold by July 31.
"This is an ambitious timetable," the senior EU official said.
To ensure such pledges are held, the EU will dangle an offer to release 250 million euros (almost $340 million) of aid, frozen after the March coup in what was once one of west Africa's most stable democracies.
"The resumption of aid will be progressive," said French Development Minister Pascal Canfin, who will attend the discussions.
"Funds for humanitarian aid and development will depend on the progress of the road-map," he said, referring to a post-war plan agreed by the Malian parliament last week to hold elections and kick off talks with some rebel groups.