Mali has asked for military help from France after residents of the strategic northern town of Konna said Islamist rebels drove out the Malian army on Thursday, the fiercest fighting since militants took control of the country’s north nine months ago.
The fall of Konna, about 600km northeast of the capital, Bamako, was a major setback to government forces, which said earlier on Thursday they were making headway against the alliance of al Qaeda-linked rebels.
The UN Security Council convened emergency consultations in New York and agreed on a statement in which the members “express their grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali, in particular their capture of the city of Konna.”
“This serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali, and constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security,” the council said after the meeting, which was requested by France.
It also repeated calls for the restoration of democracy in Mali and urged UN members “to provide assistance to the Malian Defence and Security Forces in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups.”
French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud confirmed receipt of a request from the Malian government for military assistance and said the “nature of the response to the letter will be announced in Paris tomorrow.”
US Ambassador Susan Rice described the request for help from Mali, which was sent to the Security Council: “It wasn’t specific, but it basically said, ‘Help, France.’”
Western and regional governments are keen to dislodge the Islamists from a desert zone of northern Mali larger than France, which they captured in April, amid concerns they may use it as a launch pad to stage attacks.
Konna was the last buffer between the rebels and Mopti, about 50km south, which is the main town in the region and is seen as the gateway to the country’s north.
After hours of gunbattles, heavily armed Islamist fighters paraded in triumph through Konna’s center, saying they would push on to take Mopti and its neighboring town of Sevare, residents said.
“We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna,” MUJWA rebel group spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha told reporters. “The soldiers fled, abandoning their heavy weapons and armored vehicles.”
News of the fall of Konna sowed panic in Mopti and Sevare, the latter the site of a large military barracks and airport. The towns lie at the crossroads between Mali’s desert north and the greener, more populous south.
“We have received the order to evacuate,” the local head of a US aid agency said. “We have already pulled all our personnel and material out of Mopti.”
Local residents and a Malian soldier based in Sevare told reporters that military aircraft, including two cargo planes and four helicopters carrying Western-looking soldiers and equipment, had landed at Sevare airport on Thursday night.
The French Defense Ministry declined to comment on the reports, and Mali government and military officials were not immediately available for comment.