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Mali President Seeks French Help Against Militant Advance

Women hold banners urging national talks to end the political paralysis in the south of Mali, in the capital Bamako, January 10, 2013.
Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, has asked France for help to counter a military advance by radical Islamist forces pushing south toward the capital.

France's United Nations ambassador Gerard Araud disclosed the request late Thursday, following an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council called by France to address the Malian crisis. Araud said the request for help came in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a similar letter to French President Francois Hollande.

Araud said the French president will respond on Friday.

The Council session came just hours after Islamist militants seized the town of Konna, more than 400 kilometers northeast of the capital, Bamako, from government troops.

The militant group Ansar Dine said its fighters took control of Konna Thursday morning -- a move that residents later confirmed with VOA's French to Africa Service. The takeover places the militant force within about 25 kilometers of the major government frontline town of Mopti.

As tensions mount, the Bamako government ordered all schools closed in the capital and the nearby garrison town of Kati until further notice. The order, which covers kindergarten through university, came as state television broadcast a statement saying in part that the country faces "one of direst periods in its history." It urged all citizens "to unite behind the army in the fight to take back the north."

Talks scheduled for Thursday between Mali's government and the armed groups in the north have been postponed in the wake of the fighting.

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.

Al-Qaida-linked groups took control of Mali's north soon after renegade soldiers overthrew the government last March.

Prodi has said he foresees no foreign troops in Mali until September of this year, but the Malian government says it wants the intervention to happen as soon as possible.