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

PARIS Tue Dec 18, 2012 2:00pm EST

PARIS (Reuters) - France will address U.S. concerns about an international military mission to retake northern Mali from Islamist rebels, in time for a U.N. Security Council vote on the issue this week, a government spokesman said on Tuesday.

U.S. diplomats have voiced skepticism 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 the Malian army and pursuing a political process before then 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.

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 organized 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 Bamako where the prime minister was forced to resign last week after being arrested by the army.

A key element of the French-U.S. disagreement, diplomats say, 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.

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 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.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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