A resident of Timbuktu walks past the restored City of 333 Saints' Djingareyber Mosque.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — France has begun a military intervention in Mali with airstrikes, responding to the country's request for assistance to counter an offensive by Islamist militants.

French President Francois Hollande said that the intervention — France's first foreign combat engagement since Hollande took office — will last “as long as required,” according to the Financial Times. Earlier on Friday, France had recommended that its citizens evacuate the country.

While vague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius confirmed his country had used air power that allowed Malian forces to reassert control.

Mali's Lieutenant Colonel Diaran Kone told Reuters that his forces have "retaken Konna with the help of our military partners. We are there now."

Fabius said he couldn't confirm French troops on the ground in Mali for fear of tipping off the enemy.

Hollande specified that any aid will be transferred within the framework of a UN Security Council resolution, France 24 reported.

On Thursday, rebels who control much of the northern part of Mali successfully drove out the Malian army, gaining control of Konna, a strategic point 375 miles northeast of Mali's capital, Bamako. The move was a major setback to government forces, and prompted Mali to request help from France, BBC reported.

"We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali’s very existence,” Hollande told diplomats and journalists in Paris.

“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.”

Later Friday, Mali's President Dioncounda Traore declared a state of emergency that could extend 10 days.

The president implored non-government organizations and mining companies to give up their pickups to Mali's army, The Associated Press said.

GlobalPost's senior correspondent, Paul Ames, cites unconfirmed French media reports that Paris may have already deployed special forces and air units to the West African nations.

So far France has sent only logistical support to help the preparations for a West African regional force, according to Ames, but the Islamist advance is now threatening the key city of Mopti, raising fears the for stability of the whole country.

According to a GlobalPost report on the conflict in Mali, the country's north currently belongs to "two groups aligned with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which operates primarily in Algeria but coordinates with both Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.

"The first to appear was Ansar Dine, which floated its black flag over Timbuktu and declared its own version of Sharia law. It is led by a well-known Tuareg leader, who had converted to Al Qaeda's ideology. Then came the AQIM splinter group known as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJWA."

France is deeply concerned about the spread of radical Islam in its former colony and the wider West and North African region, according to GlobalPost's Ames.

"Intervention will be a key test for Hollande," Ames said. "[He] will want to avoid French troops being dragged into a prolonged conflict alongside Malian armed forces who have recently shown little respect for the civilian government."

GlobalPost's senior correspondent in Kenya, Tristan McConnell, says witnesses in Sevare, a town in Mali with military barracks close to the shifting frontline, reported on Thursday seeing "Western-looking" troops arriving in military transport planes.

"It remains unclear who these soldiers are, either Ukrainian contract pilots or French special forces routinely posted in the region," McConnell said.

However, he added, French intervention would be no surprise.

"France has a long and largely ignoble history of intervention in its former colonies," McConnell explained.

"In 2011, its military played a key role in the capture of Ivory Coast's renegade ex-President Laurent Gbagbo. French forces have intervened dozens of times in its former African colonies since independence and so yet another intervention, this time in Mali, whether clandestine or with UN backing would surprise few."

Follow Paul Ames @p1ames, who contributed to this report from Brussels. Follow Tristan McConnell @t_mcconnell, who contributed from Nairobi.

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