A UN peacekeeping presence in Mali looks increasingly possible, key global players said Tuesday during talks in Brussels to carve a way forward for the troubled West African nation.
"The point now is to win the peace," said French Development Minister Pascal Canfin at the close of talks bringing the United Nations and the African Union together with 45 delegations from governments, donors and aid groups.
"Military operations are continuing but we have to look to the long term," Canfin said. "We must reconquer the whole of Mali, but the future will only be secured if there is political dialogue between its people and economic development."
The EU-hosted meeting of the Mali Support Group welcomed the lightning advance of French troops in driving Islamist militants out of towns in the vast arid north seized 10 months ago, and welcomed the Malian government's bid to hold elections by July 31.
"A free and fair electoral process, the return to full constitutional order and a genuinely inclusive national dialogue are key to address the instability in Mali and restore security and development in the Sahel region across the board," a final statement said.
Top of the agenda at the talks was how to help the speedy deployment of an 8,000-strong African force, AFISMA, and whether it should be transferred to a UN mandate.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said Bamako would not be opposed, while Canfin said there was "a shared support by key players to move towards a peace mission."
"In the short term we need to see AFISMA deploy so that French forces can leave."
The president of the commission of the West African bloc ECOWAS, Desire Kadre Ouedraogo, said both the regional group and the African Union believed the UN should be involved in a future force to help with the "a massive task" ahead to keep the peace in the Sahel region.
"The threat concerns all civilised countries," Mali's Coulibaly said on arrival. "The entire world must gather around us to chase the jihadists from our soil."
Diplomats say there is a clear need for a UN force to police the country, with the ramshackle Malian army incapable of reconquering remote corners of the nation, and the French unwilling to stay for the long haul.
In his first address to the European Parliament since taking office last year, French President Francois Hollande urged Europe to fight drug trafficking in the Sahel region.
"The battle against drug trafficking is an essential element if we want to battle terrorism, because terrorism feeds off narcotics trafficking everywhere in the world and notably in West Africa," he said.
Meanwhile the European Union firmed up plans to set up a 450-strong military mission to train the Malian army.
So far, 16 EU nations plus Norway have agreed to contribute troops to the mission due to launch in Bamako on February 12, with training to start in March.
To ensure the Malian authorities stick to pledges to return democracy to one of the world's poorest nations, the EU will release 250 million euros (almost $340 million) of aid, frozen after the March coup in what was once one of West Africa's most stable democracies.