The United Nations could have a full-strength peacekeeping mission in place in Mali in July, replacing French troops and absorbing African forces currently fighting Islamist rebels, a top UN official said Saturday.
"July could see the transfer of (African force) AFISMA to the UN stabilisation mission," UN assistant secretary general for peacekeeping Edmond Mulet told journalists in the Malian capital, Bamako.
He stressed that such a force would first need the approval of the UN Security Council.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that such a vote would likely happen in April, with a peacekeeping force deployed two months later.
France is pushing for the creation of a UN peacekeeping force as it seeks to wind down its military intervention in its former colony, launched on January 11 to stop a southward advance by Islamist rebels who had occupied northern Mali for 10 months.
Mulet, who was wrapping up a week-long visit to Mali, said a UN force would help safeguard the government's sovereignty but would be limited in scope.
"It's not an intervention force," he said.
"We're not a buffer between the north and the south. The members of the Security Council and the member states are very clear on the need for Mali to extend its authority over all its territory," he added.
"Mali's sovereignty is the main objective."
France's 4,000 troops in Mali have been fighting alongside members of the AFISMA force, which was set up by the Economic Community of West African States.
They have pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists from the cities they controlled, but are still engaged in fighting around rebel hideouts in the far northeast and have been hit by suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.
AFISMA currently has around 6,300 soldiers from West Africa countries and Chad.
The French foreign minister said a UN peacekeeping force would incorporate AFISMA and could also include troops from other countries for a total of up to 10,000 soldiers.
France's UN ambassador said last month that the Security Council had "no objections" to a peacekeeping mission in Mali.