FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard in Timbuktu, Mali, as they prepare to publicly lash a member of the Islamic Police found guilty of adultery. The Mali army attacked Islamist rebels with heavy weapons in the center of the country which divides the insurgent-held north and the government-controlled south, government officials said Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/File)
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France's president vowed Friday to help stop the advance of radical Islamists in Mali, a day after the al-Qaida-linked militants seized a key town not far from a regional hub where the Malian military and international aid organizations are based.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the capture of Konna, and called on U.N. member states to provide assistance to Mali "in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organizations and associated groups."
Meanwhile, a resident who lives near the airport in Sevare in central Mali reported Friday on having heard planes arrive throughout the night.
A regional military intervention to take back northern Mali from the Islamists was not likely before September, though the recent advance by the Islamists has raised the specter of earlier military action.
France did not specify what assistance it was prepared to offer, though French President Francois Hollande said the former colonial power was ready to help to the stop the Islamist extremists.
"France, like its African partners and the entire international community, cannot accept that," he said in a speech to France's diplomatic corps.
The fighting over the town of Konna represented the first clashes between Malian government forces and the Islamists in nearly a year, since the time the militants seized the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
The Islamists seized the town of Douentza four months ago after brief standoff with a local militia, but pushed no further until clashes broke out late Wednesday in Konna, a city of 50,000 people, where fearful residents cowered inside their homes.
"We have chased the army out of the town of Konna, which we have occupied since 11 a.m.," declared Sanda Abou Mohamed, a spokesman for the Ansar Dine militant group, speaking by telephone from Timbuktu.
A Mali army spokesman refused to comment on the loss of Konna, which is just 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the government-held town of Mopti, a strategic port city along the Niger River.
However, a soldier, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists, said the army had retreated from Konna. He said several soldiers were killed and wounded, though he did not have precise casualty figures. "We didn't have time to count them," he said.
While Konna is not a large town, it has strategic value as "the last big thing ... on the road to Mopti," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
"I think the real target here is to seize the airstrip in Mopti, either to hold it or blow enough holes in it to render it useless," Pham said. "If you can seize the airstrip at Mopti, the Malian military's and African militaries' ability to fly reconnaissance in the north is essentially clipped."
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Most Malians adhere to a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion.
In recent months, however, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability to push into Mali's towns, taking over an enormous territory they are using to stock weapons, train forces and prepare for global jihad.
The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south. While the capture of Konna is likely to exacerbate those concerns, Bamako remains 435 miles (700 kilometers) away.
The retreat by the Malian military is also sure to raise questions about its ability to help lead a regional intervention.
Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations also contributed to this report.
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/Babahmed1
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