France starts talks on UN peacekeepers for Mali

AP News
Posted: Feb 06, 2013 3:35 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — France asked the Security Council to consider establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali on Wednesday, a move that reinforced its plan to send French troops home as soon as military operations end.

France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that he started discussions on the issue during closed council consultations on Mali, but insisted that a U.N. force would deploy only when security conditions permit.

"So I think we have to wait several weeks before assessing the security environment and taking the decision of deploying a peacekeeping operation," he said.

Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum. That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by the Islamists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north, including amputations for theft.

France launched a military operation Jan. 11 against the Islamist extremists after they suddenly started moving south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns.

The unexpected move by the al-Qaida-linked extremists, and France's intervention, are forcing the Security Council to revamp its two-track plan, adopted in December, to reunify the country.

The council resolution authorized an African-led force known as AFISMA to support Malian authorities in recovering the north — an area the size of Texas — but set no timeline for military action. Instead, it set out benchmarks to be met before the start of offensive operations, beginning with progress on a political roadmap to restore constitutional order.

With French and African troops now in control of the major towns in northern Mali, there have been discussions on how best to maintain stability in the country and return it to democratic rule.

On the military side, there were three options: a U.N. peacekeeping force, a hybrid U.N.-African force like the one in Darfur which has been criticized because of the dual U.N.-African Union command, or an all-African force like the one in Somalia which has constant funding problems.

At an international meeting on Mali in Brussels on Tuesday, there was widespread support by key players including the African Union, the west African regional bloc ECOWAS, France and the United States to gradually move toward a U.N. peacekeeping operation.

"This will not be a hybrid force but a force under (U.N.) blue helmets with a chain of command leading to the Security Council," Araud said.

France envisions a transition from the French force and the African troops which are now part of AFISMA to a U.N. peacekeeping force — but this is dependent on approval from the Mali government, which has already raised concerns about the presence of U.N. troops in the government-controlled south, he said.

"It is normal that there be questions and objections in Bamako," Mali's capital, the French ambassador said. "We need to have a dialogue with the Malian authorities."

Araud said most of the U.N. peacekeeping contingents will come from the African units that are now part of AFISMA, so the transfer should be relatively easy. They will just put on U.N. blue helmets, he said.

He said there was no objection in the Security Council to a U.N. peacekeeping force and several countries supported the idea including the United States, Britain, Morocco, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Australia and Argentina. Other council members said they would study the idea, he said.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said it would take about 45 to 60 days after the Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force for Mali to have it operational.

"We will do our best to do it as fast as possible," he said.

What is also critical is resolving all the issues that led to the present situation in Mali including political differences within the government, problems between the north and south, how to deal with terrorist and criminal groups, and how to restore security and once again make Mali a "showcase for democracy," he told a news conference.

"The solution will come from the Malians themselves, but clearly the active support of the international community is necessary," Ladsous said.