By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO (Reuters) - France vowed on Monday to strengthen cooperation with the U.N. mission in Mali as it seeks to implement an ambitious peace deal aimed at stabilizing the volatile north.
An alliance of Tuareg-led rebels signed a long-delayed peace agreement with the government at the weekend granting greater autonomy to the poor, desert region in a bid to end decades of rebellions.
Tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups has until now distracted Mali from fighting Islamist militants who briefly teamed up with Tuareg rebels to seize the north in 2012.
A French military operation scattered them a year later.
"It is essential that France accentuates its support for MINUSMA (the U.N. mission), to allow it to succeed in its noble mission of maintaining peace," French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a speech to French troops in the northern town of Gao.
Le Drian, who was to fly to Bamako later on Monday to meet President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, said additional liaison officers would be sent from the French regional security force Operation Barkhane to assist MINUSMA.
U.N. peacekeepers have increasingly become a target of Islamist militants still active in the former French colony.
The MINUSMA force commander told the U.N. Security Council last week that its 11,000 troops were not equipped to fight a guerrilla war that has killed 36 soldiers so far.
"I possess some good assets but overall we have some major shortfalls that make us extremely vulnerable," Danish Major General Michael Lollesgaard said, adding that it lacked armored vehicles and the means for sophisticated intelligence-gathering.
Diplomats have hailed the weekend peace deal as a potential breakthrough, but implementation is expected to be difficult.
One major challenge will be the return of Malian troops to parts of northern Mali currently used as drug-smuggling hubs and fiercely defended by armed groups.
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Andrew Roche)