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Mali rebels gain ground

Despite intensive aerial bombardments by French warplanes, Islamist insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali.

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The unfolding crisis in Mali is Australia's first great test as a member of the United Nations Security Council, said the Australian ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, after an emergency meeting called by France.

Mr Quinlan said Australia, along with the rest of the council, supported the French bombing of rebel training bases and other targets in Mali on Friday.

He said a surprise advance by militant Islamists had put the very existence of the nation and future stability of west Africa at risk.

''Al-Qaeda and associated extremist groups have taken over an area the size of France and they want it as a safe haven to operate right across a massive band of Africa,'' he said.

The French act was to ensure the remaining Mali military was not routed and to protect an airfield that will be crucial to later operations to retake the north.

Australia has supported calls to fast-track the African-led International Support Mission, though it is unknown how fast the force can deploy.

The US as well as some European Union nations have already pledged logistical support, while the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, has said Australia would offer material support if it could help speed up the mission.

Senator Carr on Wednesday warned that Mali ran the risk of becoming a terrorist haven like Afghanistan.

He also said Australia would consider providing some assistance to an African stabilisation force, although a decision was still some time away.

''In the meantime the great issue that confronts us here is the advance of Islamist rebels on the south of Mali, which would threaten a situation akin to that of Afghanistan,'' Senator Carr told ABC TV, adding  that terrorist training camps would threaten the band of nations south of the Sahara.

Senator Carr said Australian support was about helping West African nations once the French action had achieved its purpose in providing stability and security.

Australia was not expected to make a military contribution.

''But in the meantime we are obligated to support the provision of assistance to the government of Mali,'' the foreign minister said.

Senator Carr said Australia strongly supported the French intervention and was seeking to have deployment of the Economic Community Of West African States mission.

West African countries are meeting on January 19 to determine when they should move into Mali.

On Tuesday at a Security Council meeting in the US, Mr Quinlan will detail Australia's focus for the next two years, which will include counterterrorism, maintaining peace in conflict zones by building civilian infrastructure, and protecting civilians in war.

He said despite the frustration of some members of the council - including Australia - at Russia's block on action in Syria, the council, which has responsibility for 120,000 peacekeepers deployed in 15 missions, remains an effective tool.

Mr Quinlan said he often quoted a line by the former Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold to illustrate the UN's role.

''The United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven,'' he told an audience in 1954, ''but to save us from hell.''