UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Security Council unanimously approved a new U.N. peacekeeping force for Mali on Thursday to help restore democracy and stabilize the northern half of the country, which was controlled by Islamist jihadists until a France-led military operation ousted them three months ago.
The resolution authorizes the deployment of a U.N. force comprising 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police with a mandate to help restore peace, especially in northern cities. The U.N. peacekeepers are not authorized to undertake offensive military operations or chase terrorists in the desert, roles that will continue to be carried out by France under an agreement with Mali.
The U.N. peacekeepers would take over from a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali on July 1, although the deployment date is subject to change if security conditions deteriorate.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius welcomed the resolution, saying it "confirms the unanimous support of the international community for the stabilization of Mali as well as the intervention of France and the nations of the region to help this country."
Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over half of the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north.
When the Islamists started moving into government-controlled areas in the south, France launched a military offensive on Jan. 11 to oust them. The fighters, many linked to al-Qaida, fled the major towns in the north but many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly called the resolution "an important step" to help stem the activities of terrorists and armed groups, promote dialogue and reconciliation between Malians, and ensure peace throughout the country.
"Small cells of armed terrorists and rebels continue to represent a serious threat to instability and the territorial integrity of Mali as well as to peace and security in the region," he told the council after the vote. "This is why the government welcomes the international community to take active measures to deter and to prevent the return of armed groups."
French officials say combat in Mali has all but stopped and its intervention has severely eroded the insurgents' ability to stage large-scale operations such by deploying dozens of nimble pickup trucks to seize territory — which they did as late as January.
Before the French onslaught began, diplomats and defense officials in Paris estimated that the al-Qaida-linked militants could count about 2,000 fighters. French diplomats said Thursday that France estimates that about 700 of those have been killed, another 200 have been taken prisoner in Mali — while the rest are hiding out or have fled elsewhere in the region, including southern Libya.
The main jobs of the new U.N. force will be to stabilize key population centers in the north, support the re-establishment of government authority throughout the country, and assist the transitional authorities in restoring constitutional order, democratic governance and national unity.
The resolution authorizes the force "to take active steps to prevent the return of armed elements" to the northern areas, to rebuild the Malian police, as well as disarm and demobilize former combatants.
Because of the continuing insecurity in the north, the resolution requires the Security Council to review the July 1 deployment date for the U.N. force within 60 days to assess whether terrorists pose a major threat in areas where peacekeepers would operate or if international military forces are conducting major combat operations in those areas. If so, the council could delay the deployment.
The new U.N. force has a robust mandate to take defensive action — but not offensive military operations, a point stressed by Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin who said "there must be a clear division between peacekeeping and peace enforcement."
While the mission won't be conducting offensive or anti-terrorist operations, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters "we know it's going to be a fairly volatile environment" and there will certainly be some attacks against peacekeepers where they will have to defend themselves.
He said most of the 6,000 African troops currently in Mali will become part of the new U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, to be known as MINUSMA.
France is gradually easing back on its presence in Mali — currently just under 4,000 troops — and French officials said they expect to have roughly 1,000 there by year-end. Some 750 of those will be devoted to fighting the insurgent groups, the rest will be 150 French peacekeepers in the U.N. force, and 100 or so trainers for the Malian military, the officials said.
The U.N. force will also operate alongside a European Union mission that is providing military training to the Malian army, which is ineffective, ill-equipped and divided.
France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud said that when the Malian army is able to do its job and ensure the sovereignty of the country, the peacekeeping force will leave.
Besides improving the military and security, he said, "what we have to encourage, what we have to support, is a political process of reconciliation of all Malians."
Araud said pursing a national dialogue will be a top priority when a new U.N. envoy to Mali is appointed. French diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made, said the frontrunner for the job is Albert Koenders of the Netherlands, currently the secretary-general's special envoy for Ivory Coast.
Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report