France has proposed keeping a permanent force of 1,000 French troops in Mali to fight armed Islamist militants, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday. Fabius, on a visit to Bamako, said France was pushing ahead with plans to reduce its 4,000-strong military presence from the end of this month but planned to keep a combat force in Mali to support a future U.N. peacekeeping mission.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called last week for the deployment of a U.N. mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends. This would include thousands of African troops already in Mali in support of France’s three-month military campaign, which has swept Islamist rebels out of the towns of northern Mali and into remote desert and mountain hideaways.
Ban’s plan also referred to a parallel force to tackle al Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists directly, which diplomats had said would likely be French. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamist enclave in north Mali posed a threat to the West and pledged to entirely eradicate it. “France has proposed, to the United Nations and to the Malian government, a French support force of 1,000 men which would be permanent, based in Mali, and equipped to fight terrorism,” Fabius said before leaving Bamako after a one-day visit.
A diplomatic source in Paris said France hoped to have the peacekeeping force approved by the Security Council within three weeks, and to have it deployed by the end of June or early July in time for scheduled presidential elections. A clause in the U.N. resolution will allow Ban to request the rapid intervention of France’s 1,000 troops, which would be deployed under a bilateral deal with Mali, the source said.
Despite widespread concerns over continuing Islamist attacks in northern Mali and the lack of an effective government presence in many areas, France is pressing its former colony to quickly organize nationwide elections to complete a democratic transition after a March 2012 coup. “It is best that elections are held,” Fabius said. “Our Malian partners say they want that and it is possible. The target is July and everything is being done to meet that deadline.”