Islamist fighters have seized control of the northern town of Diabaly, despite facing strong opposition from French air forces which have been deployed in Mali over the last three days.
French planes have been using air strikes against rebel targets over the weekend. A senior rebel leader is believed to have been killed in one of the strikes, while a Malian military officer has said that over 100 rebels have been killed since France began its campaign on Friday.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters: “They took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that was not able to hold them off at that moment.”
The French President Francois Hollande confirmed last week that French soliders are engaged in armed operations in the north of Mali.
The military intervention, which was agreed in advance with Malian President Diacounda Traore came as a state of national emergency was declared in Mali, where rebel Islamist groups have been advancing from the northern territories they took control of in 2012.
Mr Traore used a televised statement to call on Malians to provide a”powerful and massive riposte against our enemies,” and confirmed that he had “called for and obtained France’s air support within the framework of the international legality”.
Mr Hollande said that the decision for France to intervene had been taken on Friday morning when it became clear that “Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world.”
France is seeking to repel the threat from the Islamist groups and protect the 6000-plus French nationals living in the former French colony.
Mr Hollande’s decision has been supported by his allies in the international community, with the African Union, the UK and the United States all backing the military operation. The west African bloc Ecowas – comprised of 15 member states – has also confirmed it is deploying troops to Mali, as has Nigeria. The UN security council is due to discuss the situation in Mali on Monday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that the air force would be used to stop the militant groups from progressing any further. Mr Fabius said: “We need to stop the terrorists’ breakthrough, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands threatening all of Africa, and even Europe.”
France has said it expects its intervention to be short, saying that it has “no intention of staying forever”.
However Abou Dardar, a spokesperson for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), one of the groups of Islamist rebels in Mali, warned of potential repurcussions, telling Associated Foreign Press: “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France.”