France gearing up to halt rebel offensive in Mali

France may already have begun to answer the Mali government's urgent call for military help, as witnesses recount delivery of aircraft and Western soldiers to an airport near Konna late Thursday. France refused to comment.

PARIS/BAMAKO — France would intervene to stop any further drive southward by Islamist rebels in Mali, President Francois Hollande said Friday, as Malian soldiers launched a counter-offensive to wrest back a key town captured by militants this week.

Western powers are worried the alliance of al-Qaida-linked militants that seized the northern two-thirds of Mali in April will seek to use the vast desert zone as a launchpad for international attacks.

Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France Thursday after Islamist fighters encroached further south, seizing the town of Konna in the center of the country. The rebel advance sparked panic among residents in the nearby towns of Mopti and Sevare, home to a military base and airport.

"We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists. "We will be ready to stop the terrorists' offensive if it continues."

Hollande said that France, alongside African partners, would respond to Mali's request for military aid within the framework of U.N. Security Council resolutions. A French diplomatic source said existing U.N. resolutions would permit a French military intervention in Mali, if needed.

The Security Council in December authorized the deployment of an African-led force supported by European states. However, an operation was not expected before September because of the difficulties of arranging funding, training Malian troops, and deploying during the mid-year rainy season in West Africa.

Military experts said, however, that escalating military tensions in Mali could force the hand of former colonial power France, the most outspoken advocate of military intervention.

"The French believe that France — and Europe — face a real security threat from what is happening in the Sahel," said Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.

He noted, though, that any French military intervention could raise hackles among regional governments wary of meddling by Paris. "If the French decide to do this they would want to make it as short, sharp and contained as possible."

REINFORCEMENTS ARRIVE

Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore, installed after a military coup in March, was due to meet with Hollande in Paris Wednesday, a French diplomatic source said. Traore will address the Malian nation Friday evening.

French officials declined to comment on reports that military aircraft carrying Western soldiers landed late Thursday at an airport at Sevare, some 36 miles south of Konna.

Residents in Sevare also reported the arrival of military helicopters and army reinforcements, which took part in the counter-attack to retake Konna overnight Thursday in a bid to roll back the militants' southward drive.

"Helicopters have bombarded rebel positions. The operation will continue," a senior military source in Bamako said.

A spokesman for one of the main groups forming the Islamist rebel alliance said it remained in control of Konna.

Asked whether the rebels intended to press ahead to capture Sevare and Mopti, the Ansar Dine spokesman, Sanda Ould Boumama, said: "We will make that clear in the coming days."

He said any intervention by France would reveal an anti-Islam bias.

"What makes us different for them from the rebel movements in Central African Republic or Congo — it is that we are Muslim?" he said, referring to insurgencies in other French-speaking African nations.

(Additional reporting by Richard Valdmanis in Dakar, Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg, and Alexandria Sage, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, writing by Daniel Flynn)

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