The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution paving the way for military intervention in Mali to retake the north from Islamist extremists.
The resolution requests a detailed plan for such an operation from African organisations within 45 days.
The UN has so far refused to endorse requests for military intervention without details of a plan.
Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels took control of the north after Mali's president was overthrown in March.
Both Mali's government and the West African regional body Ecowas have made requests for authorisation for an international force to intervene, with Ecowas proposing a force of 3,000.
The BBC's Barbara Plett in New York says that the resolution is an attempt to re-energise the West African regional body Ecowas' effort, expressing readiness to respond positively to a plan.
It comes a week ahead of a meeting in the capital, Bamako, bringing together Ecowas representatives, the African Union, and the UN secretary-general.
The resolution, drafted by France, requests that "detailed and actionable recommendations" be presented to the Security Council within the specified time.
It also calls on UN member states and regional and international organisations to provide "co-ordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support" to Mali's armed forces.
A second resolution by the 15-member Council would be required to authorise any action in Mali.
The text also urges Mali's authorities and the rebel groups controlling the north to begin a negotiation process and expresses alarm over the infiltration by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other extremist groups into the north.
Earlier this week, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic returned from Mali and warned that the Islamist militias had imposed a harsh version of Sharia law on the areas they controlled.
Mr Simonovic said that he had heard testimony that forced marriage, forced prostitution, and rape were widespread, and that women were being sold as "wives" for less than $1,000 (£620).
They have also stoned to death an unwed couple and amputated the hand of an alleged thief as well as destroying ancient shrines in the historical city of Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims.
The UN has warned that the destruction of the shrines could amount to war crimes and the International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary inquiry into alleged atrocities.