Mali military intervention
Supporters of Mali's junta participate in a demonstration against regional bloc ECOWAS at the international airport of Bamako - Reuters

The West African country Mali is seeking military assistance from the UN and France after Islamist rebels made advances and captured the strategic town of Konna.

The al-Qaida-backed militants have taken control of the town after driving out the Malian army from Konna. This is seen as a heavy blow to the government-led forces which had battled the rebels for hours.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting after a request by France's ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud over the "serious deterioration of the situation".

Konna has around 50,000 inhabitants and is 700 kilometres from the capital Bamako.

"This terrorist attack weakens even more the stability of Mali and thereby that of its neighbours. Sustainability of the Malian government and the protection of civilian populations are now at stake," said Araud after the meeting.

The latest thrust by the rebels is significant after they took control of Northern Mali from the government in April 2012 in a coup.

"We took the barracks and we control all of the town of Konna. The soldiers fled, abandoning their heavy weapons and armoured vehicles," a rebel spokesperson told Reuters.  

The Islamists, who are planning to head south, also threaten to capture the next city of Mopti, which has a population of nearly 100,000.

France is expected to make an announcement on the next course of action while the UN has already called for providing "assistance".

"This serious deterioration of the situation threatens even more the stability and integrity of Mali, and constitutes a direct threat to international peace and security," said the UN Council and added that the members "express their grave concern over the reported military movements and attacks by terrorist and extremist groups in the north of Mali, in particular their capture of the city of Konna".

The UN has already approved deployment of 3,000 African troops but it is not expected to take place until September because of logistical reasons.

Western and regional African powers are keen on evicting the Islamists from Northern Mali.

The rebels have been accused of imposing a stricter form of the Islamic Sharia law on the region creating fears that it could become one of the safe havens for Islamic militant groups especially the al-Qaida.