Al Qaeda-backed rebels advanced toward southern Mali, stoking fears of an expanding conflict as the United Nations weighs how to help African troops recapture the country's north from the rebels.
The Islamist rebels on Tuesday took new positions near the outskirts of a Niger River trading town that marks the south's last outpost under government control, Mali's army spokesman Lt. Col. Idrissa Traore said. The rebels entered the area around the sparsely populated town, Mopti, on Monday, he said.
Col. Traore said the army has moved a large number of troops to the area and is anticipating conflict. "We're already prepared to do battle with these terrorists," he said.
Rebels affiliated with al Qaeda's Saharan offshoot, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, conquered Mali's north last year, displacing nearly half a million people, imposing a fundamentalist regime, and bulldozing many of Africa's most ancient monuments, which they deemed un-Islamic.
Mali's army abandoned the region in April, weeks after a coup that left the West African nation's government and military in disarray.
The U.N. Security Council last month passed a resolution that would dispatch thousands of African soldiers to recapture the north, amid concerns that Mali's army can't repel the al Qaeda fighters by itself.
The army now faces the prospect of fighting on a new front in its own territory.
The U.S. and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have pushed Mali to hold elections before a military coalition enters the country.
The government has been crippled by infighting related to last year's coup. On Dec. 11, soldiers marched into the prime minister's house and forced his televised resignation.
Foreign powers have expressed doubt that Mali would be able to orchestrate and sustain a campaign across tracts of desert that thwarted the French, who failed to fully colonize the space during their Africa conquest. Mali has yet to re-enlist more than half of the 4,000 soldiers who quit its 9,000-troop army as last year's conflict began, said Defense Ministry spokesman Nouhoum Togo.
Government leaders in Mali reject those concerns and say they are ready to host and lead a campaign to retake the country's northern region.
President Thomas Boni Yayi of Benin, head of the African Union, appealed on Tuesday for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to play a role in Mali alongside the African force. Mr. Yayi spoke after meeting in Ottawa with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who said Canada wouldn't send troops but would work diplomatically to seek a solution.
U.S. counterterrorism officials appear increasingly open to airstrikes against insurgents in northern Mali, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Africa Center in Washington.
"Drone strikes or airstrikes will not restore Mali's territorial integrity or defeat the Islamists, but they may be the least bad option," said Mr. Pham, a senior strategy adviser to the U.S. military's Africa Command.
On the other side of the conflict, residents and visitors to the north said rebels were conscripting children and recruiting foreign fighters--including some radicalized French citizens--as they buttressed themselves for a war that could spill across the world's largest desert.
In December, police in the U.S. arrested two U.S. citizens and charged them with trying to travel to Mali to join the rebels' cause.