NAIROBI, Kenya Hundreds of French troops poured into central Mali on Friday in a bid to halt the advance of Islamist militants who last spring captured the country's north and appeared this week poised to seize the remainder of the West African nation.
French aircraft reportedly bombed rebel positions near the town of Konna as troop transports arrived throughout the day at the twin cities of Mopti and Sevare, where a major Malian military base is located.
"Some inhabitants from Konna told us that there are many dead bodies of jihadists hit by the air force," said Pate Thiam, a 33-year-old sales agent living in Sevare.
French commandoes also reportedly attacked an Islamist base in Somalia early today to try to rescue a French hostage, the Associated Press reported.
The dispatch of French troops, the first Western response to the growing presence of al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, came only hours after the rebels had seized Konna, a strategically located central town, and appeared poised to move on the country's capital, Bamako.
Alarmed by the sudden rebel advance, Malian President Dioncounda Traore sought assistance from France in a letter delivered to French President Francois Hollande on Thursday. French troops began arriving Thursday night, local residents said.
"The people panicked," said Fanta Kelly, a medical official in Mopti, who said wounded civilians and soldiers overwhelmed that town's hospital during the Islamist offensive.
The panic grew as word spread that Moussa Kusa, an insurgent preacher, had told followers that the Islamists planned to be in Sevare and Mopti by Friday prayers.
"All the civil officials rushed to the fuel station with their vehicles to prepare to flee," Kelly said.
But the arrival of the French and the stream of aircraft flying in and out reassured residents on Friday.
Britain announced support for the French move, while the United States kept mostly mum on the topic, deferring to the French to discuss their involvement. Troops from Senegal and Nigeria also were taking part in the campaign, and the government of Mali declared a nationwide state of emergency. The U.N. Security Council late Thursday called for members to assist Mali.
The seizure by militants of northern Mali last spring was an unintended consequence of the U.S.-backed NATO campaign to overthrow the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Thousands of desert tribesmen known as Tuareg, who had been incorporated into Gadhafi's army, fled Libya in the weeks after his fall. The Tuareg resumed a military campaign to establish a Tuareg-ruled state in the Sahara and quickly seized areas of northern Mali. Al-Qaida-linked militants then displaced the secular Tuareg force.
The militants, some of whom were members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, imposed a rigid interpretation of Islamic law that allowed for amputations and stonings for some perceived crimes. They also destroyed historically significant shrines in the city of Timbuktu that they considered idolatrous.
U.S. officials remained uncertain whether the al-Qaida group was a threat to U.S. interests, but the September deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans deepened concerns.
The Libyan government claimed that Mali-based extremists had participated in the attacks on U.S. outposts in Benghazi, and U.S. officials said that some of the alleged attackers phoned fellow extremists in Mali to boast.