By John Irish
LYON, France (Reuters) - Donors need to pour aid into Mali over the next six months to rebuild its strife-hit north and stop defeated militants taking advantage of the chaos to return, France's development minister said on Tuesday.
Paris launched a ground and air operation in its former colony in January to break Islamist rebels' hold on the northern two-thirds of the country, saying the militants posed a risk to the security of West Africa and Europe.
The rapid offensive took back most of the territory seized by the militants nearly a year ago.
But there was now a risk locals could grow increasingly disaffected with the area's grinding poverty and welcome back the al Qaeda-linked fighters, said officials at a Mali aid conference in Lyon.
"The average revenue per day in Mali is 1 euro. Underdevelopment and extreme poverty are a catalyst for groups that want to destabilize the region," Development Minister Pascal Canfin said on the sidelines of the conference.
"We are in a six-month battle for development," he added.
He spoke at the first of a series meetings organized by the French government to draw up a development plan for Mali ahead of an international donor's conference in Brussels in mid-May.
Paris is looking to tap into existing France-Mali ties to get northern Mali back on its feet.
About 120,000 Malians live in France - and the diaspora as a whole sends remittances back home worth between 6-10 percent of the economy.
About 170 French local authorities already have long-running partnerships with their counterparts in Mali and have invested about 35 million euros since 2006.
"We can't do it all because we also have our own budgetary constraints, but we have a moral duty to help Mali," said one senior French regional councilor invited to discuss development ideas at the conference.
Canfin said the priority was to get around 800,000 children back to school by September and help farmers during the fertile season between June-September.
"The situation in the previously occupied areas cannot be allowed to be worse than during the occupation," said France's special envoy to Mali Gilles Huberson.
Donors who suspended assistance following Mali's coup in March 2012 have since resumed budget support and project aid.
The EU has unblocked 250 million euros ($333.77 million) in frozen development aid and Paris has restored 150 million euros in aid, including a 10 million euro emergency assistance to restore key services from water to electricity.
Malian officials at the conference said the country, once hailed as a model democracy in Africa, also needed to face up to a long list of political challenges.
Successive shocks of the Tuareg separatist revolt in the north that routed the army, a coup and the traumatic 10-month occupation of more than half the nation by al Qaeda-allied rebels rocked Mali's foundations.
The conflict has ripped open ethnic fault lines between black African peoples of south and central Mali and lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs of the Saharan north running through a Sahel region fused together over centuries by overlapping ancient empires.
"All this aid is welcome ... But reconciliation has to come first," the vice-president of Timbuktu's regional council, Oumar Abdoulaye Toure, told Reuters.
(Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Andrew Heavens)
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