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