BAMAKO, Mali -- The international standoff with Islamists controlling northern Mali took a decisive turn Friday, as French forces engaged in an intense battle to beat back an aggressive militant push into the center of the country.
Responding to an urgent plea for help from the Malian government, French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters, blunting an advance by hundreds of heavily armed extremists, according to French officials and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the top U.S. military commander in Africa. One French helicopter had apparently been downed in the fighting, he said.
The Pentagon is now weighing a broad range of options to support the French effort, including enhanced intelligence sharing and logistics support, but it is not considering sending U.S. troops, Gen. Ham said.
The introduction of Western troops upends months of debate over how -- and when -- foreign nations should confront the Islamist seizure of northern Mali. The Obama administration and governments around the world have long been alarmed that a territory roughly twice the size of Germany could so easily fall into the hands of extremists, calling it a haven where terrorists were building their ranks and seeking to extend influence throughout the region and beyond.
Yet for months, the Islamists have appeared unshakable in their stronghold, carrying out public amputations, whippings and stonings, as the weak Malian army retreated south and other African nations debated how to find money and soldiers to recapture the territory.
All of that changed this week, when the Islamists suddenly charged southward with a force of 800 to 900 fighters in 50 to 200 vehicles, taking over a frontier town that had been the de facto line of government control, according to Gen. Ham and a Western diplomat. Worried that there was little to stop the militants from storming ever farther into Mali, France -- for the second time in less than two years -- intervened with guns and bombs into a former African colony rent by turmoil.
"French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements," France's President Francois Hollande said in a statement Friday in Paris, noting that the operation would "last as long as necessary."
Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups that controls northern Mali along with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies, insisted in a phone interview that the militants had held their ground. "Some planes came and bombed some civilians," he said. "A woman was killed. It's a well-known scenario. There wasn't even combat. Planes bombed a mosque. That's it."
Malian officials in the capital, Bamako, called the French military strike a welcome shift in the standoff. "It was evident that the Malian army would never have been able to handle this," said Tiebile Drame, a leading opposition politician. "The French intervention goes beyond what was hoped for."