Islamist rebels have grabbed more territory in Mali despite heavy bombing by French planes, and are much closer to the capital.
In the latest setback, the al Qaida-linked extremists overran the garrison village of Diabaly in the centre of the country. French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the rebels "took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army that couldn't hold them back."
The Malian military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency began almost a year ago in the north-west African nation.
French military forces, who began battling in Mali on Friday, widened their aerial bombing campaign against Islamic extremists occupying northern Mali, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat.
The rebels, who come from several nations besides Mali, had been bottled up in the narrow neck of central Mali. But by now sweeping in from the west, they are now only 250 miles from Mali's capital, Bamako.
France is urging African nations to send their troops to fight and there have been promises, but no movements have yet been announced.
Earlier French planes bombed near the Diabaly military camp in what was still nominally government-held territory. But the Islamist fighters occupied Alatona, and also succeeded in reaching the north-south road which connects Diabaly to Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali.
In another setback, Mr Le Drian said a second French commando who went missing during a bungled attempt to rescue a hostage in Somalia, on the other side of Africa, was probably killed during the operation. The Somali insurgent group al-Shabab, which like the Islamists in Mali is linked to al Qaida, later posted on the internet two photos of a man wearing military clothing and a blood-soaked shirt surrounded by two guns, ammunition clips and protective gear. Mr Le Drian said al-Shabab had been preparing a "macabre and disgraceful" display of the dead soldiers' bodies.
The Islamist advance in central Mali came even after fighters began dropping bombs in the rice-growing region of Alatona. At that point, a rebel convoy had been spotted south-east of Diabaly.
Mali's north, an area the size of France itself, was occupied by al Qaida-linked rebels nine months ago, following a coup in the capital. For nearly as long, the international community has debated what to do. In December, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a military intervention, but only after an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures were fulfilled, starting with training the Malian military, which was supposed to take the lead in the offensive.