By Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers will start operations in Mali on July 1 after the U.N. Security Council gave the green light on Tuesday for the mission, which will be the world body's third largest when fully deployed by the end of this year, envoys and officials said.
The 15-member Security Council unanimously approved in April a mandate for the 12,600-member force, to be known as MINUSMA, but its deployment had been subject to a council review on Tuesday of Mali's security situation. French troops will support the peacekeepers if needed to combat Islamist extremist threats.
"There was unanimous agreement by Security Council members that we should move to the next phase of Mali's recovery with the deployment of MINUSMA from July 1," said British U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, president of the council for June.
France, aided by 2,000 troops from Chad, began a military offensive in January to drive out Islamist fighters who hijacked a revolt by the Tuareg rebels and seized two-thirds of Mali. U.N. officials and diplomats say that the Chadians proved to be an extremely effective fighting force in Mali.
The U.N. peacekeeping force will assume authority from a U.N.-backed African force already deployed there to take over from the French. Most of the African force will become part of the U.N. force, U.N. officials and diplomats say.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the council he had concerns about properly equipping the peacekeepers.
"It is important to note that we are still seeking pledges for important outstanding capabilities, including medium utility helicopters, armed helicopters, intelligence, information operations and special forces," he told the council.
He described the shortages as "critical shortfalls" but said the United Nations anticipated reaching full operational capacity by December 31.
Ladsous also said the United Nations would screen all Chadian troops offered for the peacekeeping force to make sure there are no child soldiers in their ranks.
Chad was included in a U.N. list of countries published last week where children are recruited, killed, maimed or raped by government forces and armed groups. Others on the list included Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, and Mali.
Countries that have child soldiers are barred from participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions. Chad has vowed to cleanse its ranks of child soldiers and the United Nations has given the country four months to take steps to end the recruitment of children.
"Let me assure you that the United Nations is making every effort to screen the Chadian contingent to ... ensure that no troops under 18 are among them, as well as provide training on child protection issues," Ladsous told the Security Council.
Once the U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed, France will continue to handle counterterrorism and peace enforcement operations as needed in Mali, while the U.N. blue helmets will handle traditional peacekeeping duties of policing and trying to ensure new violence does not erupt.
Ameerah Haq, head of field support for U.N. peacekeeping, told the council that the hot climate in the vast West African state created serious challenges.
Haq said the United Nations could not deploy its mobile communications system to the northern, rebel-held town of Kidal "because its sensitive components will melt."
Last week Mali signed a ceasefire deal with Tuareg separatist rebels, clearing the way for government troops to return to Kidal before a presidential election next month.
The U.N. special envoy for Mali, Albert Gerard Koenders, told the council by video link that the agreement "is an important first step towards full restoration of constitutional order and territorial integrity ... (and) paves the way for holding elections nationwide, including in Kidal."
Koenders said he would chair an international commission to oversee implementation of the agreement. Another international commission, he said, will look into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, sexual violence and other serious human rights violations in Mali.
Mali's Tuareg rebels launched an uprising early last year and soon allied themselves with Islamist fighters who took advantage of a coup in the capital in March 2012 to seize the desert north.
(Editing by Bill Trott and Jim Loney)