PARIS -- As Islamist fighters scored new gains in northern Mali, French ground forces intervened Friday to help the sagging Malian army, opening a new front in the confrontation between the West and al-Qaida-allied guerrillas.
French President Francois Hollande promised that France's participation in the fighting would "last as long as necessary" to guarantee that the Malian government and army can maintain control of the former French colony in northwest Africa.
"At stake is the very existence of the Malian state," he said in a televised declaration.
Hollande's decision to intervene dramatized European and U.S. concerns over recent military gains by the half-dozen Islamist and Tuareg militias that have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country for more than seven months. Ruling a 250,000 square-mile area, they have scattered Malian soldiers southward, imposed strict Muslim laws on the civilian population and created a vast new haven for north African terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Fearing the largely desolate region could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks, France, the United States and other European governments have sought to organize an African military intervention force to restore Malian government authority. But a senior French security official acknowledged recently that the African force is nowhere near to being ready, meaning France had to intervene on its own if it wanted to respond to the immediate crisis.
"The terrorists have regrouped in recent days along the line that artificially separates Mali's north and south," Hollande said in an earlier talk Friday to assembled French diplomats. "They have even advanced. And they are seeking to deal a fatal blow to the very existence of Mali. France, as is the case with its African partners and all the international community, cannot accept this."
Hollande, who took office last May, had consistently ruled out the dispatch of French ground forces in Africa, insisting the days of France operating as an African police force are over. But an appeal Thursday from Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, and the swift deterioration of the military situation apparently changed his mind. In addition, he indicated, France's role as a power in Africa that can be relied on seemed to be at stake.
"The terrorists must know that France will always be there to support a population that lives in democracy," he declared.
Reports in Paris quoted Malian soldiers as saying they were transported to northern Mali on Friday in aircraft made available by "foreign friends." Other reports spoke of white-skinned soldiers seen in the region. But until Hollande's announcement, French officials confirmed only that the Defense Ministry maintains a dozen soldiers in Bamako as part of a military cooperation program.
Reports from Mali, just south of Algeria, said a Malian army counteroffensive apparently fell flat and Islamic guerrillas preserved their hold on the recently captured city of Konna. "We have chased the army out of the town of Konna," Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militia, said.
Konna lies about 45 miles north of Mopti, which is the northernmost headquarters for Malian government military operations. French officials expressed fear the Islamist forces, if they continue their advance, could capture Mopti and from there push all the way south to Bamako, the capital more than 300 miles to the southwest.
"Their objective obviously was the control of all Mali in order to turn it into a terrorist state," said Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Against that background, France on Friday ordered nonessential French citizens to leave the country and international aid organization in Bamako began evacuating their foreign employes.
The Malian army has been largely in disarray since a bungled coup d'etat in March led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo. Following the coup, Tuareg guerrilla forces in the Azawad National Liberation Movement, led by Col. Mohamed Ag Najim, took control of the area with little opposition from the leaderless army. On April 6 they declared independence for "the Islamic State of Azawad," the Tuareg name for the region.
Northern Mali's Tuareg population, ethnically different from the black residents of Bamako and the south, have long sought independence or at least greater autonomy. A number of accords have been reached over the years, some brokered by neighboring Algeria, only to end up dead letter.
Najim's forces were fresh from years of serving in Libya as an adjunct to Col. Muammar Gadhafi's army. As a result, they were trained and well armed, according to some reports with surface-to-air missiles from Gadhafi's arsenal.
In addition, Najim was aided by the Ansar al-Din al-Salafiya, a fundamentalist Islamist Tuareg group with close ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and led by Iyad Ag Ghali. Before the summer was over, the three main branches of AQIM had filed into the region, along with other extremist groups, and pushed Najim's mainly secular forces aside, setting up what amounted to an Islamist outland.
With France in the lead, Western nations backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution vowed to set up a 3,300-strong intervention force with soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). They were to be trained by French and other European officers, French officials said, and the United States would contribute heavy air transport planes and intelligence from satellites and drones.
In addition, a team of about 400 European Union officers was scheduled to arrive in Bamako beginning late this month to train 3,000 soldiers from Malian army units in the hope they could be redeployed in northern Mali, the officials said. U.S. soldiers have been barred under U.S. law from training Malian forces because of the March coup d'etat.
However, the senior official, speaking anonymously to address sensitive information, acknowledged that ECOWAS governments so far have not made the necessary soldiers available. The original idea that an intervention could be mounted this spring has been discarded, he said, and the question now is whether it can be put together in time for action next fall.
In his appeal Thursday, Traore sought urgent aide in response to the emergency along the separation line and the threat of an Islamist advance toward Bamako. The Security Council, meanwhile, on Thursday evening urged "rapid deployment" of an international force because of "the serious deterioration of the situation on the ground."
Traore, who was installed after the coup, was expected in Paris next week for talks with Hollande, officials said.