BAMAKO, Mali — The international standoff with Islamists controlling northern Mali took a decisive turn Friday, as French forces engaged in an intense battle to beat back an aggressive militant push into the center of the country.
Responding to an urgent plea for help from the Malian government, French troops carried out airstrikes against Islamist fighters, blunting an advance by hundreds of heavily armed extremists, according to French officials and General Carter F. Ham, the top US military commander in Africa. One French helicopter was apparently downed, he said.
The Pentagon is now weighing a broad range of options to support the French effort, including enhanced intelligence sharing and logistics support, but it is not considering sending US troops, Ham said.
The sudden introduction of Western troops upends months of tortured debate over how — and when — foreign nations should confront the Islamist seizure of northern Mali. The Obama administration and governments around the world have long been alarmed that a vast territory roughly twice the size of Germany could so easily fall into the hands of extremists, calling it a haven where terrorists were building their ranks and seeking to extend their influence.
Yet for months, the Islamists have appeared increasingly unshakable in their stronghold, carrying out public amputations, whippings, and stonings as the weak Malian army retreated south and African nations debated how to find money and soldiers to recapture the territory.
All of that changed this week, when the Islamists suddenly charged southward with a force of 800 to 900 fighters in 50 to 200 vehicles, taking over a frontier town that had been the de facto line of government control, according to Ham and a Western diplomat. Worried that there was little to stop the militants from storming ever farther into Mali, France — for the second time in less than two years — intervened with guns and bombs.
‘‘French forces brought their support this afternoon to Malian army units to fight against terrorist elements,’’ President Francois Hollande said in Paris on Friday, noting that the operation would ‘‘last as long as necessary.’’
“The terrorists should know that France will always be there,’’ he added.
Sanda Ould Boumana, a spokesman for Ansar Dine, one of the Islamist groups that controls northern Mali along with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies, insisted in a phone interview that the militants had held their ground.
‘‘Some planes came and bombed some civilians,’’ he said. ‘‘A woman was killed. It’s a well-known scenario. There wasn’t even combat. Planes bombed a mosque. That’s it.’’
Boumana called the intervention ‘‘illegal,’’ saying the French had ‘‘come to support a bunch of murderers. That’s France, and that’s the West. We are not surprised.’’
Malian officials in the capital, Bamako, called the French military strike a welcome shift in the standoff.
‘‘It was evident that the Malian Army would never have been able to handle this,’’ said Tiebile Drame, a leading opposition politician. ‘‘The French intervention goes beyond what was hoped for. No one was expecting things would go this quickly. France had said it wouldn’t intervene, and Malians were hoping for a rapid intervention.’’
Why the Islamists provoked a military strike by capturing the village of on Thursday remained unclear. They were not facing a military intervention for many months.
“Was this a move by AQIM toward Bamako? Were they making a move to simply strengthen negotiating position, to gain a little more territory?’’ Ham said. ‘‘The real question is, now what?’’