Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore
By Yemi Adebowale with agency report
Mali's interim President Dioncounda Traore Friday declared a state of emergency as government forces battled to hold back al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters threatening to push south from their northern strongholds.
Also yesterday, France carried out air strikes against the Islamist rebels as it began a military intervention intended to halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country's desert north.
"President Traore has just decreed a state of emergency. The information will be transmitted on national television this evening," an official at the presidency told Reuters, asking not to be named.
The French President Francois Hollande said earlier on Friday that Paris would respond favourably to Mali's request for help, within the limits of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and was ready to move to stop a push by the rebels into new territory.
Western governments, particularly former colonial power France, voiced alarm after the al Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured the central Malian town of Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital Bamako 600 km (375 miles) further south.
President Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward. Paris, the leading advocate for foreign intervention in Mali, has repeatedly warned that Islamists' seizure of the country's north in April gave them a base to attack the West.
"We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
The president said resolutions by the United Nations Security Council, which in December sanctioned an African-led military intervention in Mali, mean France is acting in accordance with international law.
A military operation had not been expected until September due to the difficulties of training Malian troops, funding the African force and deploying during the mid-year rainy season. However, Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after Islamist fighters took Konna.
The rebel advance caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60 km (40 miles) to the south, home to a military base and airport. Calm returned, however, after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving at Sevare airport from late on Thursday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed that France had carried out air strikes against the rebels. He would not reveal further details of the intervention - such as whether French troops were on the ground - while it was in progress so as to limit the rebels' knowledge of the operation.
Nigeria and Senegal are also providing Malian government forces with assistance on the ground against Islamist insurgents, a Malian defense ministry spokesman said Friday.
"Today, we have partners from Nigeria, Senegal ... France and more on the ground, to give us some assistance," Oumar Dao, chief of operations at the Mali Defence Ministry, told a news conference without providing further details.
"Our operational team will define what kind of aid they will provide," he added.