France is poised to join military action against al-Qaida-linked Islamists in the African state of Mali, President Francois Hollande said Friday.
Western soldiers and air force planes have already entered the country, local witnesses told Agence France Presse (AFP) and Reuters, but the French Defense Ministry has declined to comment.
France, which ruled Mali as a colonial power until 1960, has urged its citizens to leave the country.
In a speech, President Hollande said France was ready to intervene to stop armed groups that took control of parts of Mali in April and have recently been advancing toward the capital, Bamako.
Mali has pleaded for international help to repel the militia, who have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
A UN task force of 3,000 African troops is not to be deployed until September.
“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence,” Hollande said in a speech early Friday to diplomats and journalists, according to France 24.
“I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities. We will do it strictly within the framework of the United Nations Security Council resolution. We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues,” Hollande said.
Local residents and a Malian soldier based in Sevare told Reuters that military aircraft, including two cargo planes and four helicopters carrying Western soldiers and equipment, had landed at Sevare airport on Thursday night.
The French Defense Ministry declined to comment, Reuters said.
Meanwhile an un-named Mali government official told AFP a Mali army ground offensive was already being backed by French air force planes, although there were no details available.
The European Union’s foreign policy commissioner, Catherine Ashton, said moves to help train Mali’s impoverished army would be speeded up, Reuters reported.
France has hundreds of troops across western Africa, with bases or sites in places such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon, Al Jazeera said.