France's prime minister says French forces continued air strikes in Mali Saturday, driving Islamists militants out of the northern town of Konna. Militants had captured the town earlier this week.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French forces are also preparing for any rebel surge on the Malian capital, Bamako.
He said troops will remain in the area as long as necessary, saying the militants are behind much lawlessness, including kidnappings.
The French defense minister said Saturday a helicopter pilot was killed during the air strikes, which began Friday.
France announced Friday that it had deployed troops to Mali at the request of the government. Troops from Nigeria and Senegal are also reported to be in Mali to help government forces.
France's Foreign Ministry has advised French citizens in Mali to leave the country “temporarily,” while the U.S. embassy in Bamako is urging Americans against all travel to the West African country.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the United States is consulting very closely with France's government.
Al-Qaida-linked groups took control of Mali's north soon after renegade soldiers overthrew the country's elected president last March. The groups have imposed a harsh form of Islamic law on the areas in their control, drawing condemnation from human rights groups.
Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, declared a national state of emergency Friday and called on every Malian to help in the war effort.
“Every Malian, man and woman, should from here on out consider oneself to be a soldier of the nation and behave as such. We call on all mining, telephone and other companies, as well as all people morally and physically able, to contribute to this fight against terrorism. All public services should put all vehicles that could be useful in the field at the service of the army without delay.”
French President Francois Hollande said the French forces are helping to fight what he called “terrorist elements” in Mali.
“This operation will last as long as necessary. I will keep the French regularly informed about its proceedings. The terrorists must know that France will always be here, when it comes to not only its fundamental interests but also the rights of a population, that of Mali, which wants to live freely and in a democracy.''
Mali's president had asked France, the country's former colonial ruler, for immediate help in stopping the rebel advance. Diplomatic sources say Mr. Traore will meet with President Hollande in Paris next Wednesday.
Last month, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan for West African states to deploy at least 3,000 troops to Mali to help train the army and retake the north. But until this week, no troops had been expected in Mali until September.
The Islamists' takeover of Konna Thursday placed the militant force within 25 kilometers from Mopti, the northernmost city under Malian government control. The militant groups are still several hundred kilometers from Bamako.
On Thursday, the government ordered all schools closed in the capital and the nearby garrison town of Kati, citing the threat of civil unrest.
The order, which covers kindergarten through university, came as state television broadcast a statement saying in part that the country faces “one of the direst periods in its history.” It urged all citizens “to unite behind the army in the fight to take back the north.”