PARIS France will support Mali's request for military assistance to help counter an offensive by Islamist rebels but strictly within the framework of U.N. Security Council resolutions, President Francois Hollande said on Friday.
Mali asked for French help on Thursday after residents of a northern town said the rebels, who control much of the northern two-thirds of the country, drove out the Malian army in a major setback to government forces.
"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 United Nations Security Council resolutions," Hollande said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists.
"We are faced with a blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande said. "We will be ready to stop the terrorists' offensive if it continues."
A U.N. resolution in December authorized the deployment of an African-led military force and agreed European states could help rebuild Mali's army ahead of an operation later in 2013.
French government officials have declined to comment on reports that military aircraft, including two cargo planes and four helicopters carrying Western-looking soldiers, landed late on Thursday at an airport by the town of Sevare, near the latest rebel offensive.
(Reporting by Catherine Bremer, Alexandria Sage and Elizabeth Pineau)