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France, which is battling Islamist militants in Mali, will not formally propose setting up a UN peacekeeping force to take over until at least April, the French UN ambassador said Wednesday.
France sent troops to Mali in January to halt an Islamist advance on the capital and force rebels out of cities they had seized in the north of the country. French and Chadian forces are now embroiled in a guerrilla war there.
France's UN envoy Gerard Araud said the UN Security Council had on Wednesday agreed to send a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asking for a study on "the modalities and conditions for the creation of a peacekeeping force."
The report will have to be ready by the end of March. Araud said the Security Council would then start negotiating setting up the force.
France had said it wanted to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March.
But even if a resolution is passed in April, it normally takes up to three months after that for the United Nations to set up its own military command. Araud said it could be done in two months in this case.
An African force is already gathering in Mali which should form the core of any UN force, but peacekeepers could not take part in the kind of strikes against militants that the French and Chadians have conducted.
French troops will hand over to the UN peacekeepers "when the security conditions allow it," Araud said, without giving any timeframe.
The Security Council will decide if it is safe enough to send peacekeepers, he added.
The Malian government must also agree to the UN force, and there has still been no clear request for one from the transitional administration.
President Dioncounda Traore sent a letter to the UN leader last week.
Araud quoted the letter as saying that Traore requested the "rapid deployment" of a West African force, currently operating as AFISMA, "to restore the authority and sovereignty of the Malian state."
"The realization of these targets would lead us toward the transformation of AFISMA into a UN stabilization and peacekeeping operation," Araud quoted the letter as saying.
During consultations on Mali, Security Council members stressed the need to press for reconciliation and a political accord between the Bamako government and ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs in the north.
Malian troops have been accused of carrying out reprisal killings and human rights abuses in towns they have retaken from the rebels.
Araud said he had called on the UN secretariat to "accelerate" the sending of rights observers to Mali, adding that French forces would protect the UN observers "if necessary."