Mali's army has launched a counter-offensive to retake the central town of Konna seized by rebels, military sources and local residents said.
The seizure of the northern two-thirds of Mali by a coalition of al-Qaeda-linked militants on Thursday has alarmed Western and regional governments, which fear militants could use it as a base to launch attacks.
Residents in the nearby garrison town of Sevare, some 60km to the south, reported the arrival of military helicopters and army reinforcements, which took part in the counter-attack starting late on Thursday.
A spokesperson of one of the main groups forming the rebel alliance said they remained in control of Konna.
Several witnesses said foreign soldiers had arrived at Sevare's airport, helping to calm the panicked mood which gripped the town after Konna's fall. Foreign aid agencies have pulled their workers from the town.
Mali's government appealed for urgent military aid from France on Thursday after the fall of Konna, which lies some 600km northeast of the capital Bamako – at the crossroads between the rebel-held north and the populous government-controlled south.
A UN-mandated intervention by African troops is not expected before September due to logistical and other problems. – Reuters