The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no farther until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes. Konna is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) north of the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
A soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, acknowledged that the army had retreated from Konna. He said several soldiers were killed and wounded, though he did not have precise casualty figures.
Al-Qaida’s affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam.
In recent months, however, the terrorist group and its allies have taken advantage of political instability, taking territory they are using to stock weapons and train forces.
Turbaned fighters control major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban did. And like in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his government was taking action because ‘‘in recent days, the situation unfortunately deteriorated very seriously.’’
The delay by the international community in taking action allowed ‘‘the terrorist and criminal groups of northern Mali ... to move toward the south with the goal of ... installing a terrorist state.’’
The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push farther south. Bamako, the capital, is 435 miles (700 kilometers) from Islamist-held territory.
Hollande said the French government will address parliament on Monday about the operation.
The intervention earned quick, widespread support from leading voices inside France across the political spectrum. Even far right leader Marine Le Pen — one of the many critics of the unpopular Hollande — called the Socialist leader’s action ‘‘legitimate.’’
France has hundreds of troops across western Africa, with bases or sites in places such as Senegal, Ivory Coast, Chad and Gabon. However, Hollande has said that he wants to create a new relationship with former colonies in Africa.
The operation in Mali is the first military intervention under his leadership, and comes just weeks after he pulled out France’s last combat troops out of Afghanistan, ending an increasingly unpopular 11-year presence there.
France was a leading force in the NATO operation against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s forces in 2011. Also that year, France played a driving role in an international military intervention to oust Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to leave power after disputed elections. Both of those operations were under Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Corbet reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jamey Keaten in Paris; Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal; Bradley Klapper in Washington; and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/Babahmed1