GAO, Mali: France urged the United Nations Wednesday to send peacekeepers to Mali, where French forces have killed hundreds of Islamist rebels but are still coming under attack in territory reclaimed from the extremists.
After announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France called for deploying a UN peacekeeping force to take the
baton, the French ambassador to the world body said after closed Security Council talks on the crisis.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a peacekeeping force could be in place by April, incorporating troops being deployed under the banner of a West African intervention force, AFISMA, into a UN peacekeeping mission.
"Once security is assured, we can certainly envisage, without changing the structures, that this takes place in the framework of a peacekeeping operation," Fabius told journalists in Paris.
"This gives the advantage of being under the umbrella of the United Nations, under its financing," he said.
"This doesn't mean at all that the organisation would be modified, it would simply be under the general umbrella of the UN."
UN ambassador Gerard Araud said it would take "several weeks" to make an assessment on when French troops can hand over to peacekeepers.
France launched a surprise intervention in its former colony on January 11 as a triad of Islamist groups that had seized control of the north in the aftermath of a military coup pushed south toward the capital Bamako.
French-led forces have largely pushed the rebels back to remote mountains near the Algerian border but are still being attacked in retaken territory, raising fears of a prolonged insurgency.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the rebels had hit back at troops with rocket fire on Tuesday in Gao, the largest northern city.
"Once our troops, supported by Malian forces, started patrols around the towns that we have taken, they met residual jihadist groups who are still fighting," Le Drian said on Europe 1 radio.
"The combat isn't over. The attacks are going to continue," a spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) told AFP.
The Malian army arrested two young men in Gao's market Wednesday who were brandishing two grenades and a pistol, though it was unclear "whether they planned to commit an attack or wanted to use the weapons for robbery", a police spokesman said.
On Tuesday, Le Drian said the French-led operation had so far killed "several hundred" Al Qaeda-linked militants.
"This is a real war with significant losses but I'm not going to get into an accounting exercise," he said Wednesday when asked about the toll.
France's sole fatality so far has been a helicopter pilot killed at the start of the operation.
Mali said 11 of its troops were killed and 60 wounded in early fighting but has not since released a new death toll.
The UN said Wednesday it had regained access for aid operations in central Mali, and hoped to soon be able to move into the north, where landmines and lingering rebels still pose a security threat.
"We could have access over coming days," said David Gressly, who steers UN humanitarian operations in the region.
Some 500,000 people are facing hunger in the north, he said.
French President Francois Hollande, who has vowed to stay in Mali as long as it takes, said a drawdown of troops would begin in March "if everything goes to plan", a spokeswoman said.
France now has as many troops in Mali as it had at the peak of its deployment in Afghanistan in 2010.
French fighter jets continue to pound the area around the Adrar des Ifoghas massif in the far northeast, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves where the insurgents are believed to have fled with seven French hostages.
Mali has effusively welcomed the reclaiming of its northern territory, but the national mood took a downward turn when the national football team lost the semi-finals of the Africa Cup of Nations Wednesday.
"A semi-final victory could have distracted us a little bit from this war," said an agitated Diakari Dia, 21, in the capital.