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Mali’s army has been fighting Islamist rebels in the northern city of Timbuktu after a suicide bomber attempted to attack an army checkpoint.
The bomber was killed before he could detonate his bomb on Saturday evening.
This was followed by militant attempts to infiltrate the city.
The army, backed by French air power, then moved against the Islamists.
Mali’s army has been fighting Islamist rebels in the northern city of Timbuktu after a suicide bomber attempted to attack an army checkpoint
Earlier this year French troops pushed Islamists out of much of northern Mali but sporadic fighting has continued.
“The fighting is heavy and it is ongoing,” Malian army Capt. Modibo Naman Traore told the Reuters news agency, adding that the army was in the process of “encircling” the militants.
At least one Malian soldier and two civilians were wounded in Saturday’s fighting according to the city’s mayor.
The number of casualties following Sunday’s fighting remains unknown.
The people of Timbuktu had barricaded themselves in their homes after a group of Islamists infiltrated a western neighborhood of the city overnight.
The French left the Malian army on the front line for hours before they intervened and finished the job.
Several residents reported a French jet firing on rebel positions.
Another militant attack on the northern town of Gao was repelled on Monday.
Islamist rebels seized much of northern Mali a year ago after a military coup in the capital Bamako.
France intervened militarily in January amid fears that the militants were preparing to advance on Bamako. It currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali.
Since the intervention began, major cities including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have been recaptured but fighting is still continuing in desert mountains.
Malian army and troops from several African countries, including 2,000 from Chad, have also been involved in the fighting.
France plans to withdraw its troops from Mali in April, with West African countries expected to take over in the run-up to elections due in July.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a top Islamist militant, has been killed by Chadian soldiers in Mali, Chad’s armed forces have announced.
His death was announced on Chadian state television but has not been confirmed by other sources.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a former al-Qaeda leader said to have ordered January’s attack on an Algerian gas plant where at least 37 hostages were killed.
Chadian troops are fighting Islamist militants in Mali as part of an international force led by France.
“Chadian forces in Mali completely destroyed the main jihadist base in the Adrar de Ifhogas mountains… killing several terrorists including leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” the army statement on Chadian TV said.
Weapons, equipment and 60 vehicles were seized, it added.
If confirmed, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s death would be a major blow to Islamist militants in Mali.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a former al-Qaeda leader said to have ordered January’s attack on an Algerian gas plant where at least 37 hostages were killed
Reports of the killing came a day after Chadian President Idriss Deby said the country’s forces killed al-Qaeda militant Abdelhamid Abou Zeid during clashes in northern Mali.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid – whose death is still to be confirmed by DNA evidence – is said to be second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is fighting foreign forces in Mali.
Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been fighting as an Islamist militant for more than two decades.
He claimed to have received military training in Afghanistan before returning to Algeria, where he lost an eye fighting in the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar then joined AQIM – which operates across the Sahara – before breaking off to lead his own group.
He is also known as “Mr. Malboro” because of his alleged role in cigarette smuggling in the region.
Senior al-Qaeda militant Abdelhamid Abou Zeid has been killed in northern Mali, Chadian President Idriss Deby has announced.
Idriss Deby said Chadian forces killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid during clashes in the remote region.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid is said to be second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is fighting foreign forces in Mali.
The Algerian national is accused of killing two Western hostages – Briton Edwin Dyer in 2009 and Frenchman Michel Germaneau the following year.
His death will immediately raise questions over the state of several French hostages who are widely believed to have been in Abdelhamid Abou Zeid’s custody.
In January France sent some 3,500 troops to northern Mali to oust various Islamist militant groups who had seized a vast area of the Sahara desert.
Chad is one of several African countries to have supported the French operation.
After recapturing the region’s main towns, French and Chadian troops have been battling Islamist fighters in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains north of Kidal, where the militants had regrouped, in recent weeks.
Senior al-Qaeda militant Abdelhamid Abou Zeid has been killed in northern Mali, Chadian President Idriss Deby has announced
Algeria’s Ennahar TV reported earlier this week that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was among 40 militants killed in the area near the Algerian border.
“Chadian forces killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Idriss Deby said on Friday, without giving any further details.
President Idriss Deby was speaking after the funerals of Chadian soldiers killed in the fighting.
Algerian media have reported that security operatives have taken DNA samples from two of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid’s relatives to compare with the body which is reportedly his.
A US official – speaking on condition of anonymity – said Washington found reports that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was killed “very credible”, according to the AFP news agency.
However, France reacted with caution to the reports, with government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem stressing that his death was so far unconfirmed.
Earlier unverified reports in the French media said that the militant was killed during fighting against French army units.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid – believed to be in his 40s – was known as the most violent al-Qaeda commander in the region.
He was last seen in public in the Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao seized by Islamist groups last year.
France’s President Francois Hollande has said his country’s forces are engaged in the “final phase” of the fight against militants in northern Mali.
Francois Hollande said there had been heavy fighting in the Ifoghas mountains, where members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were thought to be hiding.
The president also praised Chadian troops for their efforts in the same area.
Thirteen Chadian soldiers and some 65 militants were killed in clashes on Friday, according to the Chadian army.
Chad’s government has promised to deploy 2,000 troops as part of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma).
Speaking in Paris on Saturday, Francois Hollande said “heavy fighting” was taking place in the far north of Mali, near the Algerian border.
“This is the final phase of the process since it is in that massif [the Ifoghas mountains] that AQIM forces have probably regrouped,” he said.
“Our Chadian friends launched an attack yesterday which was very harsh with significant loss of life,” Francois Hollande added.
“I want to praise what the Chadians are doing.”
France’s President Francois Hollande has said his country’s forces are engaged in the “final phase” of the fight against militants in northern Mali
The latest fighting was between Islamists militants and ethnic Tuareg in the In-Khalil area, near the border town of Tessalit.
The MNLA – a secular Tuareg group which seeks an independent homeland in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Mali, Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso – was at one time allied to the Islamists but now supports the French-led offensive.
France has deployed 4,000 troops since January 11 to help the Malian government eject Islamist militants who seized control of the north of the country last year.
The French-led forces faced little resistance during the initial offensive, when they recaptured major towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Meanwhile, more help for the French and African forces is being offered by the United States, which is sending Predator drones to Niger.
The unarmed drones would be used to overfly the zone of combat in Mali and provide information about deployments, US officials said.
French jets have carried out air strikes in Mali’s far north as they try to secure the final rebel stronghold of Kidal after a three-week offensive.
Thirty jets targeted Islamist militants’ training and communication centres around Tessalit – a mountainous area near the Algerian border.
France’s President Francois Hollande has pledged to help rebuild Mali after the rebels who seized its north are beaten.
But there are fears the fighters could re-group in the mountains near Kidal.
It is believed that several French civilian hostages are being held by militants in the area, making the situation even more delicate.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told France Inter radio on Monday that the air strikes were aimed at “destroying the bases and depots” of the rebels.
He said: “They cannot stay there a long time unless they have new supplies.”
Although French troops captured Kidal’s airport on Wednesday, rebels from a Tuareg group who want their own homeland in northern Mali – the MNLA – still have control of the town itself.
Malian Interim President Dioncounda Traore has offered to hold talks with the MNLA in order to help secure Kidal.
At the same time, French-led forces will begin chasing down Islamist militants who have retreated to desert or mountainous hide-outs.
Tessalit is about 200 km (125 miles) north of Kidal and is a gateway to the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where rebels are believed to have sought refuge after being forced from the main population centres in the north and east of the country.
French jets have carried out air strikes in Mali’s far north as they try to secure the final rebel stronghold of Kidal after a three-week offensive
Reports have also emerged that a senior figure in the main militant Islamist movement – Ansar Dine – has been captured near the Algerian border by a rival separatist group.
Malian security sources quoted by AFP news agency named the man as Mohamed Moussa Ag Mouhamed, third in command of the group. The report cannot be verified.
Speaking in Bamako on Saturday, Francois Hollande pledged more French aid to its former colony and vowed to restore cultural sites damaged by the rebels.
Francois Hollande received a warm welcome on Saturday as he visited the northern desert city of Timbuktu, which was recaptured by French and Malian troops a week ago.
On Monday, Laurent Fabius said France intended to hand over control of Timbuktu to African forces as soon as possible.
He said a French withdrawal from the city “could take place very quickly, we are working on it”.
A total of 3,500 French troops are currently in Mali.
Nearly 2,000 army personnel from Chad and Niger are helping consolidate the recent gains. A further 6,000 troops will be deployed as part of the UN-backed African-led International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma).
Despite the rapid progress of French forces in recapturing parts of the north, it may be premature to talk of mission accomplished, analysts say.
It is thought the mountainous areas around Kidal provide perfect hiding places for the militants.
On Saturday Francois Hollande said it would be wrong to assume the operation was over while Dioncounda Traore said it would be difficult to completely rid the country of Islamists.
France’s President Francois Hollande is visiting Mali, three weeks after French-led troops launched an offensive to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north.
Francois Hollande was welcomed by dignitaries and residents in Timbuktu, six days after the city was recaptured.
He is expected to thank the French soldiers and stress the need for an African force to replace them swiftly.
Meanwhile, the UN has warned of the risk of reprisal attacks against Tuareg and Arab communities in northern Mali.
The UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, said there had been serious allegations of human rights violations committed by the Malian army, including summary executions and disappearances.
There had also been reports of incidents of mob lynching and looting of properties belonging to Arab and Tuareg communities, which had been accused of supporting armed Islamist groups, Adama Dieng added.
“I call on the Malian army to discharge its responsibility to protect all populations, irrespective of their race or ethnicity,” he said.
The allegations came as heavily-armored columns of French and Malian troops continued their advance in northern Mali.
They are attempting to secure the north-eastern city of Kidal, the militants’ last stronghold, having captured the airport on Wednesday.
France’s President Francois Hollande is visiting Mali, three weeks after French-led troops launched an offensive to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north
Francois Hollande flew into the central town of Sevare on Saturday morning, accompanied by his ministers of defence, foreign affairs and development. Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore, met them at the airport.
They then flew to Timbuktu’s airport before being driven to the 700-year-old mud mosque of Djingareyber and the Ahmed Baba Institute, where fleeing militants set fire to about 2,000 priceless manuscripts.
Thousands of locals gathered in the city’s main square to welcome Francois Hollande. Many changed “Vive la France” and praised the president for ordering the military intervention in France’s former colony.
“The women of Timbuktu will thank Francois Hollande forever,” 53-year-old Fanta Diarra Toure told the AFP news agency.
“We must tell him that he has cut down the tree but still has to tear up its roots,” she added, referring to the Islamist militants.
Speaking on Friday before he flew to Mali, Francois Hollande said he wanted “to express to our soldiers all our support, encouragement and pride”.
“I’m also going to ensure that African forces come and join us as quickly as possible and to tell them we need them for this international force,” he added.
He said he wanted Mali’s transitional government to restore democracy soon and begin a political dialogue with opposition groups in the north.
However, this is not quite a “mission accomplished” moment for Francois Hollande, because the Islamist militants remain a threat.
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Friday that the French-led forces had recaptured the major population centres “must faster” than he had expected, but warned that they now had to ensure long-term security.
“They have made tremendous progress, I give them a lot of credit,” he told the AFP news agency.
“But the challenge now is to make sure that you can maintain that security and that you are not overstretched and that, ultimately, as you begin to pull back, that the other African nations are prepared to move in and fill the gap of providing security.”
President Francois Hollande is to visit Mali, where three weeks of targeted French air strikes have forced Islamist militants to retreat.
France’s President Francois Hollande will fly into Bamako to meet interim President Dioncounda Traore, his office says.
He is set to visit Timbuktu, recently seized from Islamist rebels by French and Malian troops, on Saturday.
The French military intervention has recaptured large parts of northern Mali from Islamist groups.
French troops are currently securing Kidal, the last major town which was occupied by militants who had controlled much of the northern part of the former French colony since a coup last year.
Francois Hollande will be joined on his trip by Foreign Minister Lauren Fabius, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Development Minister Pascal Canin.
Earlier, Jean-Yves Le Drian said the jihadists had now scattered, marking a “turning-point” in France’s intervention.
President Francois Hollande is to visit Mali, where three weeks of targeted French air strikes have forced Islamist militants to retreat
French polls suggest the public only have patience for a limited operation: Eradicating the Islamist threat entirely is a bridge too far.
Francois Hollande’s objective is to prepare to hand over the towns the French-led troops have captured to an African force that has begun to deploy to Mali, and create enough stability to facilitate new elections by July.
So far about 2,000 African soldiers, mainly from Chad and Niger, are on the ground in Mali.
On Thursday, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said a column of 1,400 troops from Chad was heading towards Kidal from the Niger border.
It will be the job of the African Union-backed force, the International Support Mission to Mali (Afisma), to root out the al-Qaeda-linked insurgents that have fled into the desert and mountains further north.
The Tuareg rebels launched the insurgency in October 2011 before falling out with the Islamist militants.
The Islamist fighters extended their control of the vast north of Mali in April 2012, in the wake of a military coup.
France launched a military operation this month after the Islamist militants appeared to be threatening the south.
The UK has decided to deploy about 330 military personnel to Mali and West Africa to support French forces, No 10 has said.
This includes as many as 40 military advisers who will train soldiers in Mali, and 200 British soldiers to be sent to neighboring African countries, also to help train the Malian army.
French-led forces are continuing their offensive against Islamist militants who seized northern Mali last year.
International donors have pledged $455.53 million to tackle militants.
The 330 military personnel comprises of 200 to West African nations, 40 military advisers to Mali, 70 on an RAF Sentinel surveillance aircraft and 20 on a C17 transport plane. None will have a combat role.
The UK has decided to deploy about 330 military personnel to Mali and West Africa to support French forces
A conference taking place in Brussels is expected to decide which countries will contribute troops for an EU military training mission for Mali and discuss details of the mission.
Meanwhile, French-led troops are consolidating their position in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu after seizing it from Islamist extremists. They are then expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal. They seized Gao, northern Mali’s biggest city, on Saturday.
Islamist militants took the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the airport in the key northern city of Timbuktu, French military officials say.
The troops encountered no resistance as they headed towards the city, a senior officer with the Malian army told AFP news agency.
French and Malian troops have been pushing north in their offensive against Islamist rebels.
On Saturday, they seized Gao, the most populous city in northern Mali.
Thousands of people poured out into the streets to celebrate the arrival of the troops.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the airport in the key northern city of Timbuktu
Islamists seized the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
The advance comes as African Union leaders are meeting to discuss sending more troops to Mali.
“We control the airport at Timbuktu,” a senior Malian army officer told the AFP.
“We did not encounter any resistance.”
A military spokesman in Paris told the AFP that the French and Malian troops now control access to the city as well as the territory between Timbuktu and Gao.
Once Timbuktu is secured, the French-led troops are expected to focus on the last rebel stronghold, Kidal, near the border with Algeria.
Kidal – home of the head of Ansar Dine, the main militant group in northern Mali – was bombed overnight by French forces, Malian officials say.
Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over.
The second phase will be to track down the militants to their desert hideouts, which could prove a much more difficult task.
French-led forces in Mali are advancing on the key northern city of Timbuktu, as they press on with their offensive against Islamist rebels.
On Saturday Malian and French forces seized Gao, another key northern city.
The advance comes as African Union leaders are meeting to discuss sending more troops to Mali.
Islamists seized the north of the country last year, but have been losing ground since French forces launched an operation earlier this month.
Late on Saturday French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Malian and French troops would arrive “near Timbuktu soon”.
Overnight they secured Gao – northern Mali’s most populous city- after special forces captured the airport and a strategic bridge to the south.
Most militants appear to have fled into desert hide-outs and the hunt for them may prove more difficult once all major towns are secure.
Troops from Niger and Chad are to assist Malian forces in further securing the town.
African Union leaders are holding a summit in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, as members move to deploy troops to help the French-led operation there.
African states have pledged nearly 5,700 troops to support French and Malian forces in their campaign.
Only a small part of the African force has so far deployed.
French-led forces in Mali are advancing on the key northern city of Timbuktu, as they press on with their offensive against Islamist rebels
A number of West African countries on Saturday raised the total number of troops pledged to 5,700. Separately, Chad has said it will send 2,000 soldiers.
Meanwhile, the US said it would provide mid-air refuelling for French warplanes.
The Pentagon said it had also discussed plans for the US to transport troops to Mali from countries including Chad and Togo.
Islamists seized a vast area of northern Mali last year and have tried to impose strict Sharia, or Islamic law.
Some 3,700 French troops are engaged in Operation Serval, 2,500 of them on Malian soil.
France intervened militarily as the Islamists advanced further south. It said that the capital, Bamako, was under threat.
As French and Malian troops moved into Gao, Malian officials spoke of scenes of joy, but also some looting.
“Possibly at a certain point the enemy in front of us was underestimated,” Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said ahead of the summit in Addis Ababa.
“But everyone has seen that this terrorist group intends to spread its criminal purpose over the whole of Mali, and eventually target other countries.”
The AU has recommended civilian observers monitor the human rights situation in the areas which have come back under the control of the Malian government.
Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of committing serious abuses.
Treasures of Timbuktu:
- Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th Centuries
- 700,000 manuscripts survive in public libraries and private collections
- Books on religion, law, literature and science
- Added to UNESCO world heritage list in 1988 for its three mosques and 16 cemeteries and mausoleums
- They played a major role in spreading Islam in West Africa; the oldest dates from 1329
- Islamists destroyed mausoleums after seizing the city
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the northern town of Gao, France’s defence ministry has said.
Town of Gao was previously a stronghold of Islamist fighters after it was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamists last April.
French-led troops moved into Gao itself after earlier securing the airport and a strategic bridge to the south.
French officials said troops from neighboring Niger and Chad would now move into the town to help secure it.
They also suggested that government control was already being restored, with the mayor of Gao’s returning on Saturday after being ousted by the Islamist takeover.
There was no official death toll from the offensive, but the French army said “dozens” of Islamist fighters were killed in the overnight operations, without any casualties on the French and Malian side.
After a punishing series of air strikes on jihadist positions in Gao, Malian and French forces took first the airport and then the bridge over the river Niger, before being able to confirm they had taken control of the whole of the town.
Malian officials spoke of scenes of joy on the streets of Gao, but also of some looting.
Gao’s mayor, who has been in the capital Bamako since the town fell to the Islamists early last year, has been flown back in.
French-led troops in Mali have taken control of the northern town of Gao
Chadian and Nigerian forces, meanwhile, are poised to pushed up from the Nigerien border – about 200 km to the south – in order to reinforce the French and Malians.
French-led troops are also reported to be advancing on the town of Lere to the west.
It all appears to confirm a picture of rolling successes for the French and Malians, as they retake the main population centres of the north, says the BBC’s Hugh Schofield in Paris.
The fall of Gao, northern Mali’s most populous town, marks a significant advance for French and Malian troops.
Islamists seized a vast area of northern Mali last year and have imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, on its inhabitants.
France intervened militarily on January 11 to stop them advancing further south.
It has already deployed 2,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali as well as launching air strikes.
With the capture of Gao, the French are increasingly confident of pushing the Islamists out of all the major population centres in the north, says our correspondent.
The other major northern towns of Kidal and Timbuktu remain in Islamist hands. But, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said the historic town of Timbuktu – an important symbol which has also been under Islamist control for most of the last year – should also soon be retaken.
The French are confident that this phase of the campaign will soon be over, adds our correspondent, though of course the vast desert hinterland offers the Islamists endless opportunities to retreat and regroup.
The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled to neighboring countries since 10 January to escape the fighting.
In a statement earlier, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that 3,700 French troops were engaged in Operation Serval, 2,500 of them on Malian soil.
Gao was one of the first rebel-held areas to be targeted by air-strikes after France decided to intervene in its former colony, a decision which took many by surprise.
A UN-backed international force had not been expected in the west African state until the autumn.
Several African countries have pledged military aid to help the Malian government win back control of the north.
On Friday the African Union asked the UN Security Council to authorize immediate logistical help to allow the 6,000-strong force to deploy quickly.
It also recommended civilian observers to monitor the human rights situation in the areas which have come back under the control of the Malian government. Human rights groups have accused the Malian army of committing serious abuses.
French and Malian troops have seized the key towns of Diabaly and Douentza from militant Islamists, France’s defence minister has said.
French warplanes have bombed suspected Islamist positions around both towns since France launched a military operation in Mali on January 11.
A column of French and Malian troops entered Diabaly, said an AFP news agency reporter with the soldiers.
France has sent some 2,000 troops to help Malian forces fight the militants.
It has called on West African countries to speed up the deployment of a regional force of more than 3,000.
An Islamist group in Nigeria has said it carried out an attack last week which killed two Nigerian troops as they prepared to deploy to Mali.
Ansaru said it targeted the troops because the Nigerian military was joining efforts to “demolish the Islamic empire of Mali”.
French and Malian troops have seized the key towns of Diabaly and Douentza from militant Islamists
Nigeria has pledged to send 1,200 troops to Mali, with the first 50 deployed on Thursday.
Togolese and Senegalese soldiers make up the remaining 100 troops already in Bamako, AFP reports.
Mali’s Islamist fighters fled Diabaly, about 400 km (250 miles) from the capital, Bamako, on Friday.
On Monday, French soldiers from the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment as well as parachutists and Malian troops entered the town after reconnaissance flights by Gazelle helicopters, according to an AFP reporter who was with the soldiers.
They had set out at dawn from the nearby government-controlled town of Niono.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Diabaly was now under the control of French and Malian troops, AFP reports.
The central town of Douentza, about 800 km (500 miles) from Bamako, had also been recaptured, he was quoted as saying.
Army commanders had earlier expressed fears that Islamists fleeing Diabaly had planted landmines.
On Sunday, Jean-Yves Le Drian said France was seeking “total reconquest” of northern Mali.
“We will not leave any pockets of resistance,” he told French television.
The Islamist groups currently control a vast area in the Sahara Desert, larger than France.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has said the 32 militants who took dozens of people hostage at In Amenas gas plant had “come from northern Mali”.
As many as 48 hostages – including foreigners – are thought to have died at the site near the town of In Amenas.
About 20 captives remain unaccounted for after the four-day siege, which ended on Sunday.
The militants said they took hostages in retaliation for French intervention against Islamists in Mali.
Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal has said the 32 militants who took dozens of people hostage at In Amenas gas plant had come from northern Mali
France’s President Francois Hollande has ordered security stepped up around public buildings and transport because of military operations in Africa.
Francois Hollande was responding to the risk of Islamist attack after French forces attacked militants in Mali and Somalia.
A pilot was killed as air strikes were launched on a column of Malian rebels.
In Somalia, two French soldiers were “sacrificed” in a raid to free a French hostage, Francois Hollande said. The hostage was believed to have died.
France’s anti-terrorism alert system known as “Vigipirate” is being reinforced immediately, with security boosted at public buildings and transport networks, particularly rail and air. Public gatherings will also be affected.
The alert will remain at red, the second-highest level at which emergency counter-attack measures are put in place.
The “struggle against terrorism” required all necessary precautions to be taken in France itself, the president said.
Francois Hollande’s remarks came within hours of one of the Islamist groups targeted by French military action in Mali threatening reprisals against France.
An Ansar Dine spokesman told Reuters news agency there would be consequences for French citizens throughout the Muslim world.
The operations in Mali and Somalia were launched within hours of each other but were “totally unconnected”, according to government officials.
French troops were deployed in Mali on Friday after the army lost control of a strategically important town to Islamists who were advancing south. The rebels took control of a huge swathe of northern Mali last April.
The central town of Konna has since been recaptured, the Malian government says.
President Francois Hollande has ordered security stepped up around public buildings and transport because of military operations in Mali and Somalia
Then, French commandos went into action in Somalia, swooping on the town of Bulo Marer in an attempt to free Denis Allex, who was kidnapped in July 2009.
A battle erupted with al-Shabab militants and, according to President Francois Hollande, the operation failed “despite the sacrifice of two of our soldiers and probably the assassination of our hostage”.
Earlier, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said one of the soldiers had been killed, another was missing, and “all the indications” were that Denis Allex had been killed by his captors.
But al-Shabab insists the hostage was not in the area at the time of the raid and is alive.
Hundreds of French troops have been deployed in Mali, both in the conflict zone near Konna and in the capital, Bamako.
An estimated 6,000 French expatriates are said to live in Bamako and one of the tasks of the French mission is to guarantee their security.
President Francois Hollande said “heavy losses” had been inflicted on France’s adversaries “but our mission is not over yet”. A Malian army officer said that more than 100 rebels had been killed.
The defence minister said earlier that Paris had decided to act urgently to stop the Islamist offensive, which threatened to create “a terrorist state within range of France and Europe”.
He also revealed that a French helicopter pilot, Lieutenant Damien Boiteux, was killed in Friday’s fighting – during an air raid to support Mali’s ground troops in the battle for Konna.
Eleven Malian soldiers have also been killed and 60 injured in fighting around Konna, Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore said in a statement.
There were reports of civilian casualties too, with Human Rights Watch talking of ten deaths in Konna.
On Saturday, Dioncounda Traore called Francois Hollande to thank him for the operation, the AFP news agency reports.
Dioncounda Traore declared a state of emergency on Friday, which he said would remain in place for an initial period of 10 days.
West African bloc Ecowas has authorized the immediate deployment of 2,000 troops to Mali and UK Prime Minister David Cameron said British forces would offer logistical assistance to help transport troops and equipment.
The Ecowas troops – from Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Togo – are expected to arrive in the next 10 days.
A government official in Niger told Reuters around 500 troops would be sent while AFP reported that Burkina Faso was sending a similar force.
In a statement, Ecowas Commission President Kadre Desire Ouedraogo said the decision was made “in light of the urgency of the situation”.
For some months, Ecowas had been planning to send 3,300 troops to Mali with the aim of helping government forces reclaim the north of the country.
However, even though the mission was authorized by the United Nations, its deployment was not due to take place until later this year.
Although the French operation appears to have halted the rebel offensive, the logistics are complicated and the task of recapturing northern Mali remains a daunting one.
France is ready to stop Islamist militants who control northern Mali if they continue their offensive, President Francois Hollande has said.
However, President Francois Hollande said France would only act under UN authorization.
Francois Hollande was responding to a plea by Malian President Dioncounda Traore for help to counter a renewed rebel offensive.
Earlier, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called for the rapid deployment of an African-led international force to Mali.
Armed groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, took control of northern Mali in April 2012.
They have enforced an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.
Analysts say Western nations are concerned that Mali’s north could become a base for terrorists to plan and launch international attacks.
The UN has approved plans to send some 3,000 African troops to Mali to recapture the north but they are not due to arrive until September.
“They (rebels) are trying to deliver a fatal blow to the very existence of this country,” Francois Hollande said.
“France, like its African partners, cannot accept this. 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.”
France is ready to stop Islamist militants who control northern Mali if they continue their offensive, President Francois Hollande has said
Diplomatic sources said Francois Hollande and Dioncounda Traore would meet for talks in Paris next Wednesday.
It is not clear what form French intervention might take, but one possibility is the use of air strikes if the rebels advance on the strategic central town of Mopti.
Speaking shortly before Francois Hollande’s address, French War Veterans Minister Kader Arif appeared to rule out a speedy deployment of French troops to Mali.
“There is clearly an emergency but… there’s no point in rushing in,” said Kader Arif.
“At the same time, there can be no kind of engagement that could take place in this emergency without taking account of the international scale.”
Earlier this week, the militant Islamist group Ansar Dine said it had entered the key central town of Konna and intended to advance further south.
The army has refused to comment on the claim.
Following its emergency meeting on Mali on Thursday, the UN Security Council called for a “rapid deployment” of the African force and expressed “grave concern” at the capture of Konna by “terrorists and extremist groups”.
UN diplomats in New York said President Dioncounda Traore had appealed for help to Paris and to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
“It basically said <<Help, France>>,” the US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice told reporters in describing the letter.
France was the colonial power in Mali until 1960.
Islamists in Mali have begun destroying remaining mausoleums in the historic city of Timbuktu, an Islamist leader and a tourism official said.
“Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu,” Abou Dardar, a leader of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, told AFP news agency.
Islamists in control of northern Mali began earlier this year to pull down shrines that they consider idolatrous.
Tourist official Sane Chirfi said four mausoleums had been razed on Sunday.
One resident told AFP that the Islamists were destroying the shrines with pickaxes.
Timbuktu was a centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
It is a UN World Heritage site with centuries-old shrines to Islamic saints that are revered by Sufi Muslims.
Islamists in Mali have begun destroying remaining mausoleums in the historic city of Timbuktu
The Salafists of Ansar Dine condemn the veneration of saints.
“Allah doesn’t like it,” said Abou Dardar.
“We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area.”
Islamists seized control of Timbuktu in April, after a coup left Mali’s army in disarray.
The news that further monuments were being destroyed came one day after Islamists were reported to have cut the hands off two people.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another Islamist group operating in the area, warned that there would be further amputations, AFP reported.
Last Thursday the UN Security Council gave its backing for an African-led military operation to help Mali’s government retake the north if no peaceful solution can be found in coming months.
A day later, Ansar Dine and the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group, said they were committed to finding a negotiated solution.
A group of Tuareg rebels has declared independence for a northern Malian region called Azawad, after seizing control of the area late last month.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) made the statement on its website, adding that it would respect other states’ borders.
Tuareg is one of two rebel groups to have gained ground in the area after Mali’s government was ousted.
Coup leaders took over in protest at the failure to stem the rebellion.
The declaration comes as rights group Amnesty International warned that Mali was on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in the wake of the rebellion.
It demanded that aid agencies be given immediate access to the country after days of looting, abduction and chaos in the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and the historic city of Timbuktu.
Tuareg rebels has declared independence for a northern Malian region called Azawad
On Thursday the MNLA rebels declared a “unilateral” ceasefire after the UN Security Council called for an end to the fighting in Mali – and after it said it had secured territory.
A statement posted on the rebel website on Friday proclaimed independence, adding it would respect existing borders with neighboring states and adhere to the UN Charter. The statement also called for recognition from the international community.
“We completely accept the role and responsibility that behoves us to secure this territory. We have ended a very important fight, that of liberation… now the biggest task commences,” rebel spokesman Mossa Ag Attaher is quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
However, it is unclear which of several groups is actually in charge in northern Mali.
The MNLA was formed last year, partly by well-armed Tuareg fighters returning from Libya, where they had backed former leader Muammar Gaddafi.
But the UN has voiced alarm at the presence of the Ansar Dine group amid the rebel forces, which has links to al-Qaeda and wants to impose Islamic law, or Sharia, across the whole of the West African state.
Unlike the MNLA, Ansar Dine is not in favor of an independent northern state. AFP reports that Islamist rebels have begun exerting control in parts of northern Mali.
Mali has been in disarray ever since the 22 March coup enabled rebels to secure territory in the north.
People are continuing to flee the area and buses to the capital have been packed with people desperate to get out. Reports say the situation in the northern town of Gao, in rebel hands, is particularly tense.
The Algerian government also says seven members of its staff were kidnapped by unknown gunmen in Gao. The consul and six colleagues were forced to leave their diplomatic mission at gunpoint.
The Algerian government says it is doing all it can to find them.
Mali’s borders have been closed to trade, the country’s access to funds at the central bank for the region’s common currency frozen and travel bans slapped on coup leaders and their supporters.
The coup and Tuareg rebellion have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Mali and some neighboring countries, with aid agencies warning that 13 million people need food aid following a drought in the region.