West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS will send troops to Mali by Monday as part of an international military campaign to contain Islamist rebel groups controlling the north of the country, an Ivory Coast official has said.
The planned deployment was announced on Saturday as French troops, sent to Mali after the rebels captured a strategic town in the south, continue to fight alongside Malian troops to halt the rebels' advance.
The town of Konna has since been wrested from the rebels after French troops launched airstrikes on Friday in which a French pilot was killed.
"The mandate for the deployment was signed by the president [of Ivory Coast] yesterday ... Monday by the latest, the troops will be there or will have started to arrive," said Ali Coulibaly, Ivory Coast's African integration minister.
Alassane Ouattara, the Ivorian president, currently holds the rotating chairmanship of ECOWAS.
ECOWAS has for months lobbied the international community to support its plan for a regional military force to end the nine-month occupation of Mali's north by groups that include Ansar Dine, MUJWA and AQIM, al-Qaeda's North African affiliate.
The arrival of ECOWAS troops would be the first deployment by African nations.
France, Mali's former colonial master, said it was involved in a legitimate military campaign mandated by the United Nations. A UN resolution paving the way for troop deployment was crafted by France last October and adopted in December.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said on Saturday that Friday's fighting lasted five hours and resulted in several deaths. He did not give details about casualties, only saying a French pilot was among the dead.
"France will do everything it can to help the people of Mali to fight jihadists ... [These] are the same people holding our hostages," Le Drian said.
Earlier, Jean-Marc Ayrault, France's prime minister, briefed the French people on the deployment of troops to Mali.
Western governments, particularly France, had voiced alarm after the al-Qaeda-linked rebel alliance captured Konna on Thursday, a gateway towards the capital, Bamako, 600km to the south.
The capture of Konna by the rebels, who have imposed strict Sharia law in northern Mali, had caused panic among residents in the towns of Mopti and Sevare, 60km to the south.
State of emergency
Interim President Dioncounda Traore, under pressure for tougher action from Mali's military, declared a state of emergency on Friday. Traore will fly to Paris for talks with his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, on Wednesday.
Calm returned after residents reported Western soldiers and foreign military aircraft arriving late on Thursday at Sevare's airport, the main one in the region.
Hollande said France would not stand by to watch the rebels push southward.
Paris has repeatedly warned that the rebel’s seizure of the country's north in April, which was boosted by the chaos created after junior army officers overthrew the government, gave them a base to attack neighbouring African countries and Europe.
"We are faced with blatant aggression that is threatening Mali's very existence. France cannot accept this," Hollande, who recently pledged his country would not meddle in African affairs, said in a New Year speech to diplomats and journalists in Paris.
French military operations in support of the Malian army against rebels "will last as long as necessary," France's UN ambassador, Gerard Araud, wrote in a letter to the Security Council obtained by Reuters.
In Washington, a US official told Reuters the Pentagon was weighing options in Mali, including intelligence-sharing with France and logistics support.