The UN is preparing to start deploying a new peacekeeping force in Mali on schedule in three weeks, even though the security situation in the north remains "complex and volatile", the UN chief has said.
Ban Ki-moon's statement on Monday came amid reports that a Malian government delegation and Tuareg MNLA rebels had reached an agreement "in principle" that would allow planned elections in July to go ahead in the disputed northern Kidal region, according to a senior mediator in the talks.
Negotiations in the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, opened on Saturday, after Mali's army last week began advancing towards Kidal, the MNLA's last stronghold in the remote northeast, in the first direct fighting in months.
In late April, the UN Security Council authorised a UN peacekeeping force comprising 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police to replace a 6,000-member African-led mission in Mali on July 1.
It said the date could be delayed if security conditions deteriorate. The council is expected to make a final decision on deployment of the UN force at a meeting on June 25.
Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over half of the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by fighters linked to al-Qaeda.
UN chief's report
In the report to the Security Council, Ban said major combat operations have largely ceased, and the increasing presence of Malian, French and African troops in the north "has helped stabilise the situation and significantly hamper the movement and actions of armed groups".
But Ban also cited reports that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has intensified activities in Mali's Tamesna region near the border with Niger and Algeria, while armed extremist group training camps have been found east of Timbuktu.
He said the mandate of the new UN force to use all necessary means to protect the population and prevent the return of armed elements to key populated areas "presents complex challenges".
It does not include "peace enforcement or counter-terrorism responsibilities", which will be handled by French forces, which could pose a problem if civilians need immediate protection, he said.
Ban said the UN's current plans are to establish the military headquarters for the force, known as MINUSMA, in June "and progressively deploy additional units as they can be generated for operations commencing from July 1".
He said the bulk of the military units in the African-led mission are expected to be transferred to the UN force on July 1, subject to pre-deployment training and a UN assessment of their capabilities and human rights record.
UN officials said last month that none of the African military units meets the equipment requirements for UN operations.
Ban said they have been given "a grace period of four months" to reach UN standards and he appealed to donors to help equip the force's soldiers.
Agreement 'in principle'
Meanwhile, at the Burkina Faso talks, the Malian government has made it clear that it wants civil administration and the army to return to Kidal before elections scheduled for July 28 and has threatened to seize the town if no agreement is reached by Monday.
"On the point concerning the deployment of Malian armed forces in the region of Kidal, we have obtained an agreement in principle," Djibril Bassole, Burkina's foreign minister, announced after Monday's round of meetings.
"The two sides have requested a few hours to report back to their bases ... in order to be able to come back tomorrow for the final adoption of this document."
Mali's Tuareg community has for decades demanded greater political autonomy from the southern capital, Bamako, and more spending on development for the impoverished region, which they call Azawad.
France has pushed hard for elections to go ahead in order to seal a democratic transition. But the MNLA has so far refused to disarm and rejected the return of Malian soldiers to Kidal.
Bassole said the agreement would establish a mixed commission composed of both sides to monitor security and prepare for the army's deployment in Kidal.