By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The 15-nation U.N. Security Council on Thursday unanimously authorized the deployment of an African-led military force to help defeat al Qaeda and other Islamist militants in northern Mali.
The French-drafted resolution also authorized the 27-nation European Union and other U.N. member states to help rebuild the Malian security forces, who are to be assisted by the international African force during an operation in northern Mali that is not expected to begin before September 2013.
The adoption of the resolution was the result of a compromise that ended weeks of disagreements between the United States and France over how best to tackle the problem of Mali, where al Qaeda-linked insurgents seized vast swathes of territory in March.
The resolution authorizes the deployment for an initial period of one year of an African-led intervention force, to be known as AFISMA, to take "all necessary measures, in compliance with applicable international humanitarian law and human rights law."
The phrase "all necessary measures" is diplomatic code for military force. AFISMA is expected to have up to 3,300 troops and will assist the rebuilt Malian security forces "in recovering the areas in the north of its territory under the control of terrorist, extremist and armed groups."
The French text leaves open the question of how the international force will be funded. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has recommended against straight U.N. funding for the operation, suggesting that it be financed through voluntary contributions.
The voluntary approach appeals to neither France nor the AU. The resolution calls on Ban to submit a report to the council on funding options. The Security Council does not have to accept Ban's recommendation, though envoys say it may be difficult for the French to sway the council to support direct U.N. funding.
U.N. officials say Ban dislikes the idea of the United Nations providing direct financial and logistical support for the initial operation to dislodge al Qaeda from northern Mali because it will be a messy fight, with a simple goal of killing as many militants as possible.
"There could be serious human rights questions raised and I'm not sure it's a good idea for the U.N. to be directly involved in that," a diplomat told Reuters.
POLITICAL PROGRESS NEEDED
The fall of Mali's north to Islamist groups, including al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM, has created a haven for militants and international organized crime groups in West Africa, stirring fears of attacks in Europe.
The resolution also sets key "benchmarks" for Mali, including a political agreement and verified training - including human rights training - and operational readiness of the battered Malian army and the African intervention force.
The political track would have to include a deal between the Malian government and the separatist Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, diplomats said. The text calls for the AU and U.N. chief Ban to report to the Security Council on the readiness and deployment of AFISMA prior to the commencement of any military operations.
Recent political strife in southern Mali has also raised concern among Western U.N. delegations, who would like to see the Malian military stop interfering in politics.
"The benchmarks are caveats to make sure AFISMA and the Malian army are really up to the task," an envoy said.
U.N. diplomats and officials say there has been progress on the political front. The Tuareg separatist MNLA, which launched the northern uprising, and Ansar Dine, a local Islamist group, have agreed to work on a negotiated solution with Malian officials.
Once viewed as an example of democratic progress in Africa, Mali was plunged into chaos in March by a coup that toppled the president and left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by rebels to seize the country's desert north.
Former colonial master France, which has several citizens held hostage in the Sahara by al Qaeda-linked groups, is pushing for a swift war. Washington, which spent years working with Mali's army, advocates a more cautious approach, but would also like al Qaeda removed from the country as soon as possible.
One of the issues the French and U.S. delegations disagreed about was Washington's belief that Malian troops and forces from the West African regional group ECOWAS would not be up to the fight against battle-hardened AQIM militants, diplomats said.
The Americans believe non-ECOWAS countries with forces accustomed to desert fighting like Chad and Mauritania should lead the initial combat operations in northern Mali.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen and Stacey Joyce)