By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The African Union appealed on Wednesday for U.N. funding for a military operation to combat Islamist extremists in northern Mali after U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon cautiously recommended the Security Council approve the force without U.N. financing.
Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the country. But Islamist extremists, some allied with al Qaeda, have hijacked the revolt.
The AU observer to the United Nations, Antonio Tete, told the 15-member Security Council that the deployment and operations of an African force of 3,300 troops would need "a U.N. support package funded through assessed contributions to ensure sustained and predictable support to the mission."
"Experience in the Darfur region of Sudan, with AMIS, and, currently, in Somalia, with AMISOM, has clearly shown the limitations of, and constraints linked to, support provided on a voluntary basis," Tete said.
AMIS was the African Union's force in Sudan before it became a joint U.N.-AU force, which was renamed UNAMID. In Somalia, an AU peacekeeping force is known as AMISOM.
Diplomats said the African Union and France - the most vocal Western backer of a plan for African troops to retake northern Mali - were angry that Ban had not offered U.N. funding. Seven French nationals are being held hostage in the desert region.
The fall of Mali's north to the Islamists, including AQIM, al Qaeda's North African wing, has carved out a safe haven for militants and international organized crime, U.N. officials say, stirring fears of attacks in West Africa and in Europe.
"The terrorists have stepped up their activities and are seeking reinforcements to carry out a jihad from Mali," Mali's minister for Malians abroad and African integration, Traore Rokiatou Guikine, told the Security Council. "Mali is on the way to becoming a breeding ground for terrorism."
Highlighting that threat, the U.N. Security Council's al Qaeda sanctions committee added the Movement for Unification and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, to its al Qaeda blacklist on Wednesday, the committee announced on its website.
It said that MUJAO, which is active in northern Mali, was linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. MUJAO is known to be holding a number of foreigners hostage.
French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said he was expecting a report from the United Nations on what support it could provide for a Mali mission. "There is no reason why we shouldn't have logistical support provided by the U.N.," Araud said, adding any assistance would have to be endorsed by the council.
LIMITED U.N. ABILITY
In a report to the Security Council, Ban suggested funding for the initial combat operation could be through "voluntary or bilateral contributions," which diplomats said meant the European Union would be asked to pay.
U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman told the council on Wednesday that the African Union and Malian forces would need "a significant amount of support by international partners including general and specialized equipment, logistics and funding."
"The United Nations has limited ability to deliver a support package in the near term to a combat force," he said. "Once their objectives have been achieved, the council could consider the option of the United Nations providing a logistics package for stabilization operations undertaken by the force."
"Consideration could also be given to the deployment of a peacekeeping operation following the completion of combat operations," Feltman said.
He said Ban shared the "profound sense of urgency" to deal with the Mali crisis but there were still questions about how the African Union and Malian forces would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed.
Feltman added that Ban's caution over the operation was not intended to delay action but ensure a successful intervention.
U.N. diplomats said France was drafting a resolution to approve the intervention force for Security Council adoption later this month.
But in light of Ban's cautious report, diplomats said negotiations were likely to center on whether the entire operation should be mandated in one resolution or whether approval should be split into two phases.
"We need one resolution, I don't think we need two resolutions," Araud said.
Mali's government and the two rebel groups that took control of the northern half of the country in April met for the first time on Tuesday and agreed to negotiate an end to the crisis, a minister from mediator Burkina Faso said.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said in Paris on Wednesday that military intervention in northern Mali was virtually certain, but added that operations were unlikely before September or October of next year.
(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Peter Cooney)