World powers back UN force in Mali

Regional powers and representatives from world bodies discuss stabilisation and reconstruction at Brussels conference.

    African and other world powers have thrown their support behind a proposal that would see the United Nations deploy a peacekeeping force to Mali, taking over responsibilities from a similar African force.

    Top of the agenda of Tuesday's EU-hosted meeting of the Mali Support Group in Brussels was how to ensure lasting security by supporting democracy, economic development and human rights in one of the world's poorest countries.

    "The point now is to win the peace," Pascal Canfin, the French development minister, said at the close of talks bringing the UN and the African Union together with 45 delegations from governments, donors and aid groups.

    "Military operations are continuing but we have to look to the long term," he said.

    "We must reconquer the whole of Mali, but the future will only be secured if there is political dialogue between its people and economic development."

    The meeting welcomed the lightning advance of French troops in driving al-Qaeda-linked rebels out of towns in the vast arid north seized 10 months ago, and welcomed the Malian government's bid to hold elections by July 31.

    "A free and fair electoral process, the return to full constitutional order and a genuinely inclusive national dialogue are key to address the instability in Mali and restore security and development in the Sahel region across the board," a final statement said.

    The talks came as Laurent Fabius, French foreign minister, said Paris' 4,000-strong forces may be out of the West African nation as early as next month.

    "I think that starting in March, if everything goes as planned, the number of our troops should diminish", the Metro newspaper quoted Fabius as saying.

    African force deployment

    Tuesday's talks focused on giving delegates an update on the military situation and humanitarian affairs, Al Jazeera's Paul Brennan reported from Brussels.

    The delegates also discussed the political process following the conflict, and arrangements for holding elections by July 31 as planned.

    At the top of the agenda for the talks was how quickly an 8,000 strong African Union force, AFISMA, could be deployed, and whether its mandate should be transferred to the UN.

    Tieman Coulibaly, Malian foreign minister, said his country would support such a move, while Canfin said there was "a shared support by key players to move towards a peace mission".

    "In the short term we need to see AFISMA deploy so that French forces can leave."

    Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, president of the commission of the West African bloc ECOWAS, said that both his organisation and the AU believed that UN peacekeepers should be deployed.

    Diplomats say there is a clear need for a UN force to police the country, with the ramshackle Malian army incapable of reconquering remote corners of the nation, and the French unwilling to stay for the long haul.

    The European Union has also firmed up plans to set up a 450-strong military mission to train the Malian army.

    Kidal under control

    On the ground, in northern Mali, French soldiers are now in control of Kidal, formerly the last stronghold of the rebel Ansar al-Dine.

    The French push in the northeast involved fighter jets targeted rebel hideouts and fuel depots in the desert on Tuesday, near the Algerian border.

    The French defence ministry said 1,800 Chadian troops had entered Kidal to "secure" the Saharan outpost, after days of air strikes in the surrounding mountains where rebels were believed to be hiding in hillside caves.

    Also on Tuesday, eight al-Qaeda-linked suspects were captured in Gao, and are expected to be transferred to Bamako where they will eventually stand trial. They include six Malians, a Nigerian and an Algerian man.

    After a three-week military campaign by French-led forces drove the rebels from most of their strongholds, including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, dozens of French warplanes on Sunday carried out major air strikes on rebel training and logistics centres in Mali's mountainous northeast, near the Algerian border.

    The rebels who controlled northern Mali for 10 months have fled into the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the Kidal region, a mountainous landscape honeycombed with caves.

    They are believed to be holding seven French hostages with them, kidnapped in Mali and Niger in 2011 and 2012.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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