The fighting takes place amid concerns that Al Qaeda-linked militants are poised to push south to the strategic, government-controlled cities of Sévaré and Mopti, where many residents have reportedly started to panic.
Analysts say the loss of Sévaré, which hosts a key military base and nearby airport, would make it even more difficult to retake northern Mali – a vast desert expanse where organized criminal networks have linked-up with jihadist groups, netting tens of millions of dollars through kidnapping and control of the lucrative cocaine trade, and often brandishing weapons smuggled from Libya after the fall of Mumar Gaddafi.
For weeks, Paris urged multilateral action through regional African groupings, the government of Algeria, and the UN – hoping to prevent the Sahel region from turning into what some French worry would be an Afghanistan for Europe.
Yet the poor showing by the Army at Konna this week, where Malian troops had been preparing to fight for months, apparently seized French attention, and today French president François Hollande swung into action, launching airstrikes and deploying troops for “as long as necessary” the head of state said, citing UN Security Council resolutions.
"French Army forces supported Malian units this afternoon to fight against terrorist elements," added Mr. Hollande. "We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this."
Konna is a small town just south of the de facto frontier between the Islamist-occupied north and the government held-south. While it is of minimal
strategic significance, many analysts view its capture as a troubling indicator of the broader ambitions of the Islamist rebels and the state of the Malian
“If the Islamists take over this region it would be a major, major blow to an already very weakened Mali,”said Rudy Atallah, who has extensive experience in the region and served as Africa Counterterrorism director in the office of the US Secretary of Defense. "Sévaré is home of the 62nd Motorized Regiment of the 6th Military Region. It is also home to Mali's elite fighting force."
Some 6,000 French live in Mali, and seven are now held captive by the rebels.
Warnings have been swirling
Warnings of a rebel attack on central Mali have been swirling for days. But despite local and regional media outlets reporting large convoys of Islamist fighters
heading south, many residents in Sévaré dismissed the reports as rumor.
“We felt safe because we hear these stories a lot but it is always nothing,” said Oumaru Guindo, a resident of Sévaré. “The Army told us they had killed the
terrorists in Konna and liberated Douentza,” he continued, “but when we saw many Malian soldiers returning and heard that many people were wounded, it was
clear what really happened and we knew they [the rebels] had taken Konna.”
What was clear to Mr. Guindo on Thursday afternoon was confirmed by several media outlets hours later, even as the Malian Army insisted that they had repelled the rebel advance.
Guindo has since left Sévaré with his wife and small child, telling the Monitor that “everyone is panicking.”
Few outside of Mali believe that the Malian military is capable of retaking the north on its own, but the army’s most recent performance has raised new
concerns about the ability of Mali’s military to hold on to the areas it does control.
According to Andrew Lebovich, a Senegal-based research who closely monitors events in neighboring Mali, "France is acutely concerned
about the situation in Mali. These new developments are particularly alarming, as they further demonstrate the state of the Malian military and the
deterioration of the security situation even in parts of the country under government control."
How best to tackle the crisis in Mali has been a matter of intense international debate ever since an alliance of separatist rebels and armed Islamist groups drove the Malian military from the country’s north in the wake of a military coup that toppled Mali’s democratically elected government last year.
In light of Thursday’s events, Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, sent a request for more immediate assistance to Hollande and UN
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. France also convened an emergency session of the UN Security Council.
The UN has already approved the deployment of an African force to Mali in December, but troops are not expected to arrive until next September, and serious questions remain over who will oversee and pay for the mission.
The fall of Konna, however, has given greater weight to those calling for swift action. The European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, for example, is among the first to have found a renewed sense of urgency, releasing a statement calling for "enhanced and accelerated international engagement" in order to
“support the rapid deployment of the African-led international support mission to Mali."