BAMAKO (Reuters) - France's defense minister on Monday criticized the slow deployment of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali's volatile northern region, saying the delay had encouraged a fresh wave of Islamist militant attacks there.
France dispatched thousands of troops to its former colony early last year to retake control of northern towns which had been overrun by separatists and al Qaeda-linked rebels in 2012 following a coup in the capital Bamako.
Elections were held last year and a U.N. mission, known as MINUSMA, was created to help stabilize the north. But a resurgence in attacks blamed on Islamist groups has killed at least 20 U.N. soldiers in the past two months alone.
"Northern Mali has been weakened because MINUSMA was not there at the moment it needed to be," Jean-Yves Le Drian told French broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI).
France will send troops to the town of Tessalit near the border with Algeria as a temporary measure while MINUSMA builds up its presence in the north, he said.
"It's a necessity for MINUSMA to deploy to the north. It must continue its deployment. It will. Everything is on track. It's been slow, which explains the void," Le Drian added.
A French defense ministry source told Reuters last week that Paris was deploying 250 soldiers to Tessalit and another 150 in the nearby town of Aguelhok, the scene of frequent attacks in recent weeks.
The same source said that just 22 percent of the U.N. mission's forces were based north of the Niger River, an area that encompasses the bulk of the territory seized by the Islamists, a claim which MINUSMA rejected on Monday.
"Since its establishment MINUSMA has intensely pursued its deployment in northern Mali ... To date, of a total of 8,250 blue helmets now present in Mali, 6,600 ... are deployed north of the Niger River," the mission said in a statement.
"This corresponds to 80 percent of the blue helmet forces."
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, Bert Koenders, quit this month to become the Netherlands' new foreign minister.
France began repositioning some of its soldiers outside Mali earlier this year in a 3,000-strong force known as Operation Barkhane, which focuses on the regional security threat across the Sahara-Sahel zone.
(Reporting by Adama Diarra; Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Gareth Jones)