However, France said the declaration of an independent homeland had no standing if not recognised by other African states amid international alarm over Mali's swift collapse in the two weeks since a coup in the capital Bamako.
A democratic success since its last coup 21 years ago, Mali is now roughly divided into a rebel-controlled north and junta-controlled south and a group of radical Islamists have exploited the chaos to swoop in and install sharia law.
Humanitarian groups have warned the country is on the brink of catastrophe as hundreds of thousands of people flee the unrest and rebels loot food and medicine supplies across an arid region already facing food shortages.
A Tuareg rebel group early Friday declared the independence of their desert homeland which they call Azawad, which has been the subject of several rebellions in the northern triangle of the bow-tie shaped nation.
The latest has been fuelled by a haemorrhaging of weapons from Libya following Muammar Gaddafi's downfall.
"We solemnly proclaim the independence of Azawad as from today," Mossa Ag Attaher, a spokesman for Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said on France 24 television, confirming a statement on the group's website.
He said the MNLA, which captured northern Mali with Islamist groups over the past two weeks following a coup in the capital, would respect "the borders with other states" and would halt all military operations.
French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet said Friday: "A unilateral declaration of independence that was not recognised by African states would have no meaning."
After decades of fighting for independence analysts warn it will not be easy to dislodge the Tuareg from the north now that they have staked their claim. And not all northerners will accept their claim of independence.
West Africa expert Paul Melly of London-based Chatham House said Mali cannot be considered "definitively partitioned."
"Much of the population of the north, particularly towns like Gao and Timbuktu and the farming villages of the Niger valley, is made up of sub-Saharan Africa ethnic groups such as the Songhai and the Peul, who consider themselves to be Malian and have no interest in an independent Tuareg state." However, despite the triumph by the MNLA their hold on the desert looked tenuous.
Ansar Dine, their Islamist comrades-turned-rebels set about imposing Islamic sharia law and kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in the northeast.
Algeria's foreign ministry said an unidentified group had attacked its consulate in the town of Gao and kidnapped the consul and six staff members.
Amnesty International warned that north Mali was on the brink of a "major humanitarian disaster" while Oxfam and World Vision said crippling sanctions against the junta could have devastating consequences.
"All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled," said Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty International's researcher on west Africa.
"The population is at imminent risk of severe food and medical shortages that could lead to many casualties especially among women and children who are less able to fend for themselves."
More than 200,000 people have fled since the rebellion began in mid-January.
Angry at government's handling of the insurgency a group of low-ranking soldiers lead by Captain Amadou Sanogo on March 22
ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure just weeks before he was due to step down after an election.
ECOWAS army chiefs on Thursday drew up a "mandate" for a 2,000-strong force that could be sent into a section of Mali the size of France that is now in Tuareg separatist and Islamist hands.
However, an ECOWAS official said after a 12-hour meeting in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan that the military plan still needed approval from regional heads of state.
In Bamako on Thursday, regional mediator Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibrill Bassole said an announcement in "the right direction" was expected from coup leader Sanogo and that sanctions could be lifted soon.
Witnesses on the ground and observers say that the real new masters of Mali's northern desert are not the Tuareg nomads but the Ansar Dine led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, which has connections with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Ansar Dine, "Defenders of Faith" in Arabic, has ordered women to wear headscarves and threatened to cut off the hands of thieves in the ancient city of Timbuktu, once the jewel in Mali's tourism industry.
The UN Security Council this week called for an immediate ceasefire but proposed no firm action as the two-week-old junta floundered.