France has asked the United Nations Security Council to establish a peacekeeping force to Mali, where French forces have killed hundreds of al-Qaeda-linked fighters but are still coming under attack in territory reclaimed from the rebels.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said on Wednesday a peacekeeping force could be in place by April, incorporating troops being deployed under the banner of a West African intervention force, AFISMA, into a UN peacekeeping mission.
"From the moment that security is assured, we can envisage without changing the structures that it can be placed under the framework of UN peacekeeping operations," Fabius told reporters.
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"This gives the advantage of being under the umbrella of the United Nations, under its financing," he said.
France has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops, as well as warplanes and armoured vehicles in its three-week-old Operation Serval that has broken the rebels' 10-month grip on northern towns.
It is now due to gradually hand over to a UN-backed African force of about 8,000 troops, known as AFISMA, of which around 3,800 have already been deployed.
Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the UN, told reporters that he started discussions on the issue during closed council consultations on Mali, adding the potential UN force would deploy only when security conditions permit.
"We have to wait several weeks before assessing the security environment and taking the decision of deploying a peacekeeping operation,'' he said.
On Tuesday, African and other world powers announced their support for deployment of the UN peacekeeping force to Mali, taking over responsibilities from African force.
Araud's proposal comes as French and African forces battled the al-Qaeda-linked fighters outside Gao, northern Mali's largest town.
French-led military forces are still fighting to secure the north of the country, and according to France's defence minister they are facing significant resistance from the rebels.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister, described the desert campaign against the group as a "real war" that was far from won.
After driving fighters from north Mali's main towns with three weeks of air strikes, France is now pursuing them in the remote northeast where pro-autonomy Tuaregs are pressing their own territorial claims.
French fighter jets continue to pound the area around the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the far northeast, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where the fighters are believed to have fled with seven French hostages.
Le Drian said that French and Malian joint patrols were searching the scrubland outside the desert trading towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Residents of Gao said on Tuesday that the town was hit by rockets fired from outside the city.
Meanwhile, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) - one of the armed groups - said it had attacked military positions in Gao.
"The combat isn't over. The attacks are going to continue," MUJAO's Abou Dardar told the AFP news agency.