For months the French have been agitating for intervention in Mali. Today Malian officials confirmed that the French military had arrived to help the Malian army fight Islamist advance.

“We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence. France cannot accept this,” said the French President, Francois Hollande, in a speech to diplomats and journalists this morning. “We will be ready to stop the terrorists’ offensive if it continues.”

Radio France International , citing French diplomatic sources, said that some 30 French Special Forces arrived last night to prepare for both ground forces and an air campaign.

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Earlier this week, Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore (above), installed after a military coup last March, asked for help. The heavily armed Islamists who control northern Mali – Malian groups Ansar Dine and Mujao as well as mainly Algerian jihadis from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb – were heading south, accompanied by several units from the Nigerian militiant group Boko Haram.

The Malian army was unable to stop them. Yesterday the Islamists took the town of Konna, the last settlement before Mopti, which marks the border between north and south.

White men spotted

Then last night, around 9pm, at least two French military Hercules transport planes landed in Sevare, about 10 miles from Mopti. Sources in Bamako say four Chadian helicopters also landed. White men seen around Sevare are believed to include Ukrainian and Belarusian chopper pilots as well as French special forces.

Today Malian forces, based at Sevare, drove back up the road to Konna where there has been fighting all day. Some sources say foreign forces have been helping them, and the town has now been returned to government hands.

For months the Europeans and Americans have been talking about intervening in Mali, because the Islamists who control the north are seen as a threat to Europe. But there is a more immediate danger: the jihadis have said that if the French intervene, the first thing they will do is kill the eight French hostages they are holding.

Bombings expected

If west African troops intervene, as envisaged in a UN Security Council resolution, expect bombings and other acts of terror in west African capitals.

Earlier this week I asked Philip Gordon, US Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, what the Americans thought about Mali. “It will be some time for an effective intervention can take place,” he said. Other diplomats were talking about September. It looks as if the French no longer believe that waiting is an option – they’re ready to go.

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