Radical Islamist fighters have made dramatic advances in Mali, routing the national army from a key central town in the fiercest clashes since the rebel takeover of northern Mali last April.
The sudden offensive by a reported 1,200 rebel fighters, just two days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected an African plea for Canadian military aid in Mali, provoked an emergency meeting by the United Nations Security Council on Thursday to discuss the deteriorating situation.
France and Belgium are pushing the Security Council to authorize faster intervention against the rebels. There is growing global concern that the Islamist stronghold in northern Mali, with its links to al-Qaeda, could become a base for terrorism throughout West Africa.
Some reports from the UN said the Islamists have advanced within 20 kilometres of the front-line towns of Mopti and Sevare, the most strategically important army-held towns in central Mali. If so, it would suggest a serious crumbling of defences by Mali's beleaguered army.
Helicopter gunships and airplanes with Ukrainian pilots were helping Mali's army to counterattack against the rebels on Thursday evening, according to several journalists in Mali.
French officials were worried by the clashes and the rebel offensive. "Things are happening very, very fast," said Yamina Benguigui, the French minister for the francophone nations.
The Security Council has already endorsed a military intervention in Mali, to be led by West African troops with support from European military trainers and others. But the intervention has been slow to develop, with officials predicting that any military offensive against the rebels would be unlikely until September or October at the earliest.
Mali's army, which led a coup against the Malian government last March, has repeatedly boasted that it is ready to chase the rebels out of the northern two-thirds of the country.
On Thursday, army officials claimed that they had captured the rebel-held town of Douentza, about 120 kilometres northeast of Mopti. But it soon became clear that the Islamists still held Douentza and were advancing southward.
A few hours later, after gun battles throughout the morning, the Islamists captured the town of Konna, about 50 kilometres north of Mopti. They paraded victoriously through the town and vowed to keep pushing southward to Mopti and Sevare.
"We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna," rebel spokesman Oumar Ould Hamaha told the Reuters news agency. "The soldiers fled, abandoning their heavy weapons and armoured vehicles."
After the fall of Konna, dozens of injured Malian soldiers were brought to a hospital in Sevare for treatment, according to a German journalist in the town. He said many panicking residents of Sevare were fleeing southward for fear of a rebel attack.
The European Union's foreign affairs head, Catherine Ashton, said on Thursday that the latest clashes "only increased the need and urgency to act."
The UN special envoy to the Sahel region, Romano Prodi, issued a similar warning on Thursday during a visit to Mali. "If the offensive continues, I think there will be an emergency decision by the international community," he said.
The EU is planning to provide 250 military trainers to help the Malian army to prepare for a campaign against the rebels.
Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay has said that Canada might be willing to contribute to the training of the Malian army.
This week, African Union president Thomas Boni Yayi visited Ottawa and met Mr. Harper, requesting military from Canada and NATO to fight the Islamist radicals. He said the challenge was too much for Africa alone to solve.
Mr. Harper said he was gravely concerned about the emergence of "essentially an entire terrorist region in the middle of Africa." But he said Canada was not considering a "direct Canadian military mission" in Mali.
Some analysts said this could still leave open the possibility of a small number of Canadian military trainers helping in the operation to upgrade Mali's army.