French President Francois Hollande revealed Friday that an intervention by French forces had begun to help Mali's army drive back Islamist rebels marching south from their northern strongholds, DPA reported.
President Dioncounda Traore said he had "sought and obtained air support of France" in agreement with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In a televised address, he appealed to Malians to unite for the reconquest of vast territories occupied by armed rebels.
"Each and every Malian must now be considered a soldier of the motherland and consider themselves as such."
In Paris, Hollande also indicated the intervention had begun.
"French armed forces provided support this afternoon to Malian units in combatting these terrorist elements," Hollande said in a televised declaration at the Elysee Palace.
"This operation will last as long as is necessary," he said, adding he would seek the approval of the French parliament on Monday for the operation which was hurriedly agreed after Mali urgently appealed for French help to keep the Islamists out of the south.
Mali's Defence Ministry preempted Hollande's declaration by confirming that French, Nigerian and Senegalese troops had arrived in Mali to help repulse the rebels who seized control of the central town of Kona on Thursday.
After retreating under rebel fire Thursday to the town of Sevare, the army appeared to have regained some lost ground Friday, backed by the French and African forces.
"At midnight with support from European soldiers and helicopters they (Malian forces) attacked rebels in Kona again," said Justin Douglass, the communications manager for World Vision in Mali. Douglass said the rebels fled into the mountains north of the town as the government forces advanced.
"We are not in Kona, but have means to return," army Colonel Oumar Dao told a press conference in the capital Bamako.
The intervention marks a turning point nearly a year after ethnic Tuareg and Islamist rebels took advantage of a coup in the capital Bamako to seize control of the ancient town of Timbuktu and two other towns.
Since then, the Tuareg rebels have become sidelined by ultraconservative Islamist factions linked to al-Qaeda, who have imposed strict sharia law in the region, including stonings and amputations.
Late last year, the United Nations gave the green light for the deployment of a 3,300-strong West African force to help the Malian army rout the rebels. But that intervention had not been expected to start until September, giving the rebels a chance to continue their advance.
After Kona fell, Mali's transitional leader decided he could no longer wait and appealed for French military help. The UN Security Council said Thursday the rebels posed a threat to international peace and security.
Hollande set the stage Friday morning by saying France was prepared to intervene "with its African partners" to hold back the rebels, in "strict" accordance with the UN Security Council resolutions on Mali.
Hollande's advisers said the last Security Council resolution, which authorized the deployment of an African force, also allowed for France to play a "support" role.
The chairman of the regional West African bloc ECOWAS, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, praised France and the Security Council "for their quick response to stabilize the military situation in Mali."
Neither Hollande nor the Malian Defence Ministry gave details on what kind of support Senegal or Nigeria were providing. But Trarore referred to "air support" from France late Friday.
French special forces were also believed to be on the ground, helping direct the operation. The French army did not reply to a request for comment on the reports.
Hollande had been reluctant to be the only European country to intervene in Mali, for fear of being accused of policing a former colony.
French media have also questioned the impact on the fate of seven French hostages being held by armed groups in northern Mali.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Friday evening France was doing "everything" to save the hostages.
His ministry has advised all French nationals "whose presence is not indispensable in Mali" to leave the country.
Foreign Ministry sources told dpa that the tide turned in Paris after the rebels took Kona, putting them close to Mopti, on the road to Bamako and to Sevare, which has an airport that was earmarked for use in the African intervention.
Hollande labelled the rebels' latest push a "blatant aggression that threatened the very existence of Mali."
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian discussed the situation Friday by telephone with his US, British and German counterparts.
The AU Friday said it was exploring a way to expedite the deployment of the planned ECOWAS force.
In Brussels EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the European Union would "accelerate preparations" for the mission to train Malian forces.