By John Irish
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Mali has asked the United Nations to approve an "immediate" mandate for an international force to help it recover northern parts of the country controlled by Islamist militants and drug traffickers, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Monday.
The West African country descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country. But Islamist groups, some allied with al Qaeda, then hijacked the rebellion in the north to impose strict Islamic law.
Citing a letter sent by Mali's interim leaders to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on September 18, Fabius said Mali had requested a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter to mandate an international force "to help the Malian army to reconquer the occupied areas of northern Mali."
Chapter 7 allows the council to authorize actions ranging from diplomatic and economic sanctions to military intervention.
"For several months Mali has been confronted by an unprecedented security crisis in northern areas (and has been) occupied by armed groups including terrorists, drug traffickers and all types of criminals," Fabius, reading from the letter, told reporters.
"The Malian government wants the immediate military presence of this force to support Mali's security forces to carry out this mission."
A spokesman for Ban confirmed the letter had been received and said it was being studied.
Fabius said Mali's request would be discussed at a high-level meeting on the situation in the Sahel on Wednesday during the U.N. General Assembly and that Paris had begun talks with other Security Council members on how to proceed.
The Security Council on July 5 endorsed political efforts by the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to end unrest in Mali, but stopped short of backing military intervention there.
While Mali's request is the next step in the process, the Security Council is unlikely to provide a mandate for ECOWAS to intervene militarily until it outlines a more detailed strategy, including the number of troops and costs of the operation.
The council expressed in a statement on Friday a "readiness to consider a feasible and actionable proposal from ECOWAS."
Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, made a formal request to ECOWAS earlier this month for military assistance.
The West African bloc in turn mapped out a three-phase operation to reclaim northern Mali, but Traore only requested troops be deployed for the last phase and quarrelling between Bamako and ECOWAS over the deployment of troops in the Mali capital has held up the process.
Western diplomats have privately expressed skepticism about ECOWAS's current plans and it is also unclear whether Russia would support a resolution allowing military intervention.
France, Mali's former colonial ruler, has promised to provide logistical support and share intelligence as part of a future intervention in Mali but has ruled out directly sending troops to the country partly because al Qaeda's North African arm is holding French hostages.
"France is in the direct line of fire," Fabius said. "While there isn't a specific threat we have to remain extremely vigilant."
Regional and Western governments have compared the situation in Mali and the wider Sahel to Afghanistan. (Editing by Eric Beech)