France carried out an air strike on the southern fringe of the Sahara yesterday as French forces joined Mali's army in the battle to stop al-Qa'ida fighters from advancing towards the country's capital.
President Francois Hollande declared that Mali's very existence was threatened by "terrorist aggression", adding: "French forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements."
The battle came after hundreds of Islamist gunmen struck beyond their stronghold in northern Mali and seized the town of Konna in the central region on Thursday.
This placed them less than 40 miles from Mopti, the last garrison town protecting the road to the capital, Bamako. President Dioncounda Traore, of Mali, appealed for help from France, the former colonial power, and a counter-attack began yesterday with the aim of retaking Konna. The results of the air strike were not yet clear.
Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its local allies captured three regions of northern Mali last year, gaining control over 300,000 square miles.
In the past week, they have begun moving southwards and have taken even more territory.
Mr Hollande's decision to allow French forces to support Malian units could be a change of policy.
Despite its permanent military presence in Africa, France had previously ruled out deploying combat troops in Mali. France has also secured agreement for a plan to send 3,000 African troops to recapture northern Mali in alliance with the national army.
Mr Hollande told the French diplomatic corps that the extremists had "tried to strike a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali".
He said: "France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that."
Exactly what support the French army gave to the Malian forces is unclear.
In recent years, France has launched air strikes against rebels in countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. The French air force also played a leading role, alongside the RAF, in the NATO air campaign in Libya in 2011.
The French foreign ministry has advised all citizens to leave the country unless they have an "essential" reason to stay. However, Mr Hollande's decisions will be complicated by the fact that AQIM is holding eight French citizens hostage. (© Daily Telegraph, London)