Mali’s president appealed for international help after Islamists who control the north of the country seized a town in the centre and threatened to march south.
While the UN Security Council met for an emergency session in New York to discuss the crisis, witnesses told AFP that foreign troops and weapons had already begun arriving by transport plane on Thursday to bolster government forces in central Mali.
The UN called for the swift deployment of an African-led international force against the Islamists following the emergency session but a UN diplomat said Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traore had made a specific request for military intervention from France, the country’s former colonial power.
Earlier Thursday Abdou Dardar of Ansar Dine, one of the groups occupying northern Mali, told AFP that Islamist fighters had taken Konna, northeast of the regional capital of Mopti. Witnesses there said Malian soldiers were retreating.
“We almost entirely control the town (of Konna). Afterwards, we are going to continue” pushing south, Dardar said by phone. Witnesses told AFP that Malian troops were retreating toward Sevare, near Mopti.
It was at the army base in Sevare, just 60 kilometres from Konna, that witnesses spotted military aircraft landing with weapons and foreign soldiers.
One witness at the airport reported seeing weapons and soldiers leaving a C-160 military transport aircraft, adding: “Some of the men were white.”
A Malian official, confirming the arrival of the military aircraft, said they included one aircraft from a European nation, which had left men and equipment at Sevare.
Diplomats at the UN in New York said Mali’s interim president had written to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to French President Francois Hollande appealing for help.
Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the UN, said Paris would set out its position on Friday.
But he added: “France is gravely concerned by this deteriorating situation that poses a real, direct and immediate threat to regional and international peace and security,” Araud said.
“This terrorist attack weakens even more the stability of Mali and therefore that of its neighbors.”
France has so far offered only logistical support to the African-led intervention force endorsed by the UN.
A Security Council statement expressed “grave concern” at the capture of Konna by “terrorists and extremist groups” and called for the “rapid deployment” of the proposed African force.
In Bamako, a government spokesman said Traore would address the nation on Friday.
A Malian defence ministry told AFP said they would hold a news conference on these developments on Friday.
The fall of Konna to the Islamists is a fresh blow to efforts to contain the radical armed Islamists.
Until now, they had stayed largely in Mali’s vast arid north, where they took control nine months ago and where western governments fear they could set up a terrorist safe haven.
Diplomats at the UN said about 1,200 Islamist fighters were now 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from the key central town of Mopti, the gateway between rebel-held and government-held areas.
West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS is set to deploy a force of 3,300 troops to help end the insurgency, with the support of the UN Security Council.
But UN officials have warned that no deployment will take place before September.
Political tensions in Bamako, where the coup leaders still hold considerable influence, doubts about the Malian army, the African force and funding for any military operation, have further complicated preparations.
Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, said doubts had been raised in the emergency meeting late Thursday about the capability of the Malian army.
“One of the things we discussed is the extent to which the Malians are ready and willing to defend their own country,” she said.