Mali urges aggressive overhaul of U.N. peacekeeping mission

MALABO Wed Jun 25, 2014 8:38am EDT

Chadian U.N. peacekeepers gesture as they patrol during a ceremony marking two years since Malian soldiers were killed in a massacre by radical Islamists, in Aguelhok, Mali January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer

Chadian U.N. peacekeepers gesture as they patrol during a ceremony marking two years since Malian soldiers were killed in a massacre by radical Islamists, in Aguelhok, Mali January 24, 2014. Picture taken January 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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MALABO (Reuters) - Mali called on the United Nations to speed up deploying the remainder of its promised 12,000-member peacekeeping force and station more troops in the West African nation's turbulent north.

Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, speaking to Reuters on the sidelines of an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday, said the U.N. mission in Mali (MINUSMA) had so far deployed only 8,000 troops and less than half of the promised logistical resources.

The mission began in July 2013 after a French-led military campaign defeated armed Islamist groups who had seized control of Mali's desert north in the chaos following a Tuareg separatist uprising and a military coup the previous year.

The Security Council is due to discuss the mission's mandate, which expires this month, later on Wednesday. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon called earlier this month for U.N. troops to expand their presence in the north.

Diop said the new mandate should also include a greater role for the U.N. mission in negotiations with northern separatist rebels.

"We call on all the countries contributing funding and troops to make an additional effort to give the U.N. mission the resources to be able to do its job," Diop told Reuters.

"The MINUSMA force is relatively static right now: we would like it to move outside the cities into rural areas to take the battle to the hostile forces planting bombs and carrying out attacks," he said. "If this were done, the mission would have a much more offensive nature."

The mission's headquarters should move from the southern capital Bamako to a northern town, such as Gao, Timbuktu or even Kidal, the stronghold of the Tuareg separatists, Diop said. A small unit could remain in Bamako to liaise with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government, he said.

One of the challenges for the U.N. force in Mali has been the sheer size of the former French colony of 16 million people, at twice the size of France.

Security improved last year, but violent clashes and bomb attacks on Malian and U.N. troops have increased in the north in 2014.

Critics of Keita, in power since August, say he missed a chance to build lasting peace with northern rebels by failing to honor a commitment to start talks soon after taking office.

Some observers hoped a government reshuffle in April would jumpstart negotiations. However, a visit by the new Prime Minister Moussa Mara to Kidal in May triggered clashes with Tuareg rebels, who repelled army attempts to retake the town, killing some 50 troops and seizing other northern towns.

Talks with the rebel groups under the auspices of the Algerian government resulted in a ceasefire deal and guidelines for starting negotiations with the Malian government. Diop said these guidelines respected Bamako’s criteria that there could be no independence for northern Mali or autonomy for the region.

"Within these red lines, we can envisage all kinds of governance and political organization to reach an agreement."

Diop said preparatory talks would take place in Algeria "in the coming weeks" followed by full negotiations in Mali including other northern Malian communities who did not rebel.

Under the terms of an initial June 2013 deal to end the uprising, the separatist groups agreed to sever all ties with the Islamist rebels as a precursor to talks.

But Diop said that last month’s violence in Kidal showed they were in fact still collaborating.

"There were people walking around town with flags of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups."

(Editing by David Lewis and Sonya Hepinstall)

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