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French troops are taking part in operations against Islamists in northern Mali, Francois Hollande has confirmed.

“Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world,” the French president said. He said Mali’s existence as a state was under threat, and referred to the need to protect its own population and 6,000 French citizens living there. France ruled Mali as a colony until 1960.

The French President said the intervention complied with international law, and had been agreed with Malian President Dioncounda Traore. A state of emergency has been declared across the country.

Mr Traore used a televised by Giant Savings” href=”#”>address on Friday to call on Malians to unite to “free every inch” of the country.

He said he was to by Giant Savings” href=”#”>launch a “powerful and massive riposte against our enemies” after he “called for and obtained France’s air support within the framework of the international legality”.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the aim of the operation was to stop Islamist militants advancing any further.

“We need to stop the terrorists’ breakthrough, otherwise the whole of Mali will fall into their hands threatening all of Africa, and even Europe,”

The UN had previously approved plans to send some 3,000 African troops to Mali to recapture the north if no political solution could be found, but that intervention was not expected to happen until September.

Late on Thursday, an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council called for the rapid deployment of an African-led force.

The EU also said it would support the rapid deployment of an African-led mission and speed up preparations for a military training mission