UPDATE 1-France confident it can bridge gap with U.S. on Mali

Tue Dec 18, 2012 4:52pm EST

* UN Security Council may vote soon on Mali mission

* African Union plans military push to oust Islamist rebels

* Washington more cautious than Paris about plan

By John Irish and Louis Charbonneau

PARIS/UNITED NATIONS, Dec 18 (Reuters) - France said on Tuesday it would address U.S. concerns about a military mission to retake northern Mali from Islamist rebels and hoped for a Security Council vote this week, but U.N. envoys said a French-U.S. agreement on the issue remained elusive.

U.S. diplomats have voiced scepticism over a French draft resolution to approve an African Union (AU) military force that would seek to oust al Qaeda-linked insurgents who seized vast swathes of the African country last March.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon has cautiously recommended the Security Council approve the operation, but Washington countered Paris's draft with its own proposal for a two-phase mission, focusing first on training Malian and other African forces and pursuing a political process before mandating a military intervention.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said Paris was confident of finding common ground with Washington before the vote.

"We are on course to meet our objective to get this resolution adopted by the week's end," he told reporters.

"We are discussing two points: the assurances the Americans are asking for to ensure the U.N. forces are able to carry out their mission, and financing the mission," Lalliot said.

U.N. Security Council diplomats in New York, however, cast doubt on the French optimism, telling Reuters on condition of anonymity that Washington and Paris were still far from a deal.

A senior Western diplomat said "it's not quite nailed down yet."

'BENCHMARKS'

The draft resolution would have the council authorize the use of "all necessary measures" - diplomatic code for military force - to tackle the al Qaeda militants in northern Mali.

The draft would also set key "benchmarks" for Mali, including a political agreement and verified training and operational readiness of the battered Malian army and the African intervention force.

The political track would have to include a deal between the Malian government and the separatist Tuaregs and Ansar Dine, diplomats said.

The idea would be that operations to take on al Qaeda in the north of Mali, which would not begin before September or October 2013, would not commence if the benchmarks were not met, the draft says.

U.N. diplomats and officials say there has been progress on the political front. The Tuareg separatist MNLA, which launched the northern uprising, and Ansar Dine, a local Islamist group, have agreed to work on a negotiated solution with Malian officials.

Once viewed as an example of democratic progress in Africa, Mali was plunged into chaos in March by a coup that toppled the president and left a power vacuum that was quickly exploited by rebels to seize the country's desert north.

Former colonial master France, which has several citizens held hostage in the Sahara by al Qaeda-linked groups, is pushing for a swift war. Washington, which spent years working with Mali's army, advocates a more cautious approach.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Sunday that 14 of the Security Council's 15 members backed France's initiative, suggesting Washington was isolated.

The fall of Mali's north to Islamist groups, including al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM, has created a haven for militants and international organised crime groups in West Africa, stirring fears of attacks in Europe.

Washington, however, has said any military intervention should wait until after elections, to strengthen the civilian leadership in the capital Bamako where the prime minister was forced to resign last week after being arrested by the army.

The U.S. delegation wants the council to first authorize the training mission and then the northern intervention force, while the French want one authorization.

Another element of the French-U.S. disagreement, diplomats said, is Washington's belief that Malian troops and forces from the West African regional group ECOWAS are not up to the fight against battle-hardened AQIM militants.

The Americans believe non-ECOWAS countries with forces accustomed to desert fighting like Chad and Mauritania should lead the initial combat operations in northern Mali, where they would effectively be attempting to kill as many militants as possible.

The Chadians and Mauritanians have the best desert fighters, the senior Western diplomat said.

Asked whether Washington and Paris would reach an agreement, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Pelletier said discussions were ongoing and voiced support for an election in Mali to be held as soon as possible.

"We really believe that a democratically elected government would have more credibility to negotiate and to lead the campaign to restore the territorial integrity of Mali," he told reporters on a conference call.

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