Paris. France on Friday ruled out unilateral intervention in Mali in response to an appeal from its former colony for help to repel an offensive by Islamists who control the north of the country.
In comments that dampened hopes of a rapid deployment of international troops in the troubled West African state, President Francois Hollande stressed that any action would have to go through the United Nations.
The UN Security Council has already given its blessing for a 3,000-strong African force to be sent to Mali but diplomats have warned that it will not be ready to deploy before September at the earliest.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants in northern Mali this week captured the town of Konna in the center of the country and about 1,200 Islamist fighters have moved to within 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of Mopti, a strategically important town on the frontier between rebel-held and government-held territories.
The head of Mali’s army, General Ibrahim Dahirou Dembele, was due Friday to visit the region in an attempt to bolster the shattered morale of government troops.
Hollande said the situation had become critical.
“They are trying to deliver a fatal blow to the very existence of this country,” he said. “France, like its African partners and the whole of the international community, cannot accept this.
“I have decided that France will respond without delay and alongside our partners, to the request of the Malian authorities.”
But he stressed: “We will do it strictly in the framework of UN Security Council resolutions and we are ready to stop the terrorist offensive if it continues.”
Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traore, will visit Paris on Wednesday for talks with Hollande in which he is expected to reiterate his appeal for French help to prevent Mali from falling apart.
The Islamists’ advance has exacerbated fears of Mali becoming an Afghanistan-style haven for terrorists within easy reach of western Europe.
France has led calls for an international response but has so far insisted its involvement will be limited to providing logistical support for the force being prepared, slowly, by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
On the ground in Mali, witnesses told AFP that foreign troops and weapons had already begun arriving by transport plane on Thursday, apparently to bolster government forces in central Mali, but it was unclear what country they came from.
French sources said Paris has only 14 military liaison officials in Mali, apart from secret service agents.
Diplomats at the UN in New York said overnight that Traore, had appealed for help to Paris and UN chief Ban Ki-moon in a letter US ambassador Susan Rice summed up as: “Help — France.”
Until this week, the Islamists had stayed largely in Mali’s vast arid north, where they took control nine months ago, taking advantage of a power vacuum after a coup in March.
The political tensions in the capital, Bamako, and doubts about the capacity of the Malian army have contributed to doubts over whether the mooted African force will ever be deployed.