France are determined to end extreme Islamist rule in northern Mali, which many fear could act as a launchpad for attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaeda in Yemen, Somalia and North Africa.
French President Francois Hollande ordered a sudden intervention on Friday, after the west African country urged for aid with the rebels advancing.
But how has a country that has been peaceful for many years now turned into a region where intervention was apparently needed?
Background: Why the French have launched a mission in Mali
- Mali had enjoyed more than two decades of peaceful elections but a military coup in March ended that, with President Toure's government toppled.
- The government lost control of north Mali to radical Islamist group Ansar Dine who have imposed Shari'ah law.
- There have been reported atrocities in the country since the group came to power - a couple were believed to have been stoned to death for having children outside marriage.
- Some 500,000 people have reportedly fled the north since the coup.
- Despite France repeatedly saying that it had abandoned its role as policeman of its former African colonies, French President Hollande launched Operation Serval in a surprise announcement.
- Hollande has won plaudits from Western leaders for intervening but security in France has been tightened due to concerns over reprisal attacks.
The Islamist rebels launched a counter-offensive in central Mali today after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on the group's strongholds in the desert.
French planes pummeled training camps in the north and hundreds of troops were sent to the capital Bamako.
However, rebels last night entered the town of Diabaly, which is 220 miles northeast of the capital, and managed to "take the town."
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television:
Mr Le Drian added that French and Malian forces were fighting to dislodge the rebels.
President Hollande said France's aim is to support a mission by the 15-nation West African bloc ECOWAS to retake the north, as mandated by a United Nations Security Council resolution in December.
Under pressure from Paris, several regional states have said they hope to have soldiers on the ground this week.
Military chiefs from ECOWAS nations will meet in Bamako tomorrow but regional powerhouse Nigeria, which is due to lead the mission, has cautioned that training and deploying troops will take time.