France urges swift action as Mali militant threat grows
* Hollande believes real risk on attack on France
* France under increasing threat over Mideast, Africa position
* Mali intervention unlikely before March at earliest
By John Irish
PARIS, Oct 18 (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande is pushing hard for military action against al Qaeda-linked militants in northern Mali to quash what he believes is a growing risk of them launching an attack on French soil.
Yet even as Hollande's calls for intervention are prompting the fighters to threaten retaliation, back-pedalling by African nations and lukewarm support from Washington may hold up a resolution to the crisis.
The situation poses a difficult challenge for Hollande five months into a presidency where he is already being tested by a jobs crisis and the euro zone's persistent debt troubles.
"Hollande is convinced that there is a real risk of terrorism in France. The longer the situation in Mali lasts the greater the risk," said a French diplomatic source.
Mali's former colonial ruler fears al Qaeda's north African arm, AQIM, is cementing its base in the West African state, creating a launch pad from which to target French political and economic interests at home and abroad.
Diplomatic and security sources say there is "credible" evidence of planned attacks following botched bombings by AQIM at French embassies in Mali and Mauritania.
Authorities said a handful of French nationals have also travelled to the Sahel region to train for Islamic jihad.
"AQIM is a direct and immediate threat," the diplomatic source said. "Hollande would be blamed if he didn't do anything and a bomb went off tomorrow."
Mali descended into chaos in March when soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that led to Islamist fighters, some allied with AQIM, seizing two-thirds of the country.
Calls by Paris for a speedy intervention have angered AQIM and its affiliates, some of whom warned on Saturday they would "open the doors of hell" for French citizens if Paris keeps pushing for armed intervention.
Complicating matters, AQIM has threatened to kill six French hostages it holds in the region if an attack is launched.
"The Sahel is becoming a sanctuary for terrorism," Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said this week. "The safety of Europe and of France is at stake."
Le Drian said a plan of action was just weeks away, after the United Nations Security Council on Friday passed a French-drafted resolution on ending the Mali crisis and gave African nations 45 days to draw up an intervention plan.
But diplomats voice strong reservations about the timing.
Barring an emergency situation, such as the killing of one of the six French hostages, the challenges of putting together an African force make it unlikely an operation could be mounted before March at the earliest, sources say.
Merely figuring out the logistics, equipping and training a force would take many weeks, especially given the difficulty of tracking AQIM fighters.
The near-impossibility of placing soldiers in the desert during the searing summer, with seasonal sandstorms that can destroy equipment, makes the autumn a more realistic target.
The risk of an attack on France leaves Hollande facing the difficult question of whether he should try to act unilaterally, something he has ruled out for now.
"France is caught between a rock and a hard place, calling for urgent intervention but saying it must be led by Africans," the source said. "If we want to act within five months, the reality is there won't be much from the Africans so we'll have to take what we have and go. That will be a tough decision."
Hollande responded to Saturday's threat by saying he was more determined than ever to quash the militants. Up to now he has pledged logistical support but ruled out sending troops.
The United States is lukewarm on an armed intervention and regional players are divided. Mali's northern neighbour Algeria is worried about spillover from an intervention.
Even if African states come up with a workable plan, a second U.N. resolution would be required to put it into action.
"The problem is it's complicated and nobody wants to do it. Yes, it's up to the Africans to resolve the problem, but we will have to help them," said a former senior French army officer.
The threat to France is compounded by new home-grown cells of Islamists angry at government policy towards Muslims. Police last week said they had dismantled group that appeared to be plotting attacks.
Hollande's quandary is deciding whether the risks are high enough to justify preventative military action, said Mathieu Guidere, an AQIM expert at the University of Toulouse.
"This reminds us of the rhetoric of George W. Bush in the early 2000s, and we know all the risks attached to that." (Editing by Catherine Bremer and Andrew Heavens)
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