By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - An African force currently in Mali should be converted into a U.N. peacekeeping operation and a separate combat force should be created to confront Islamist threats, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended to the Security Council on Tuesday.
The U.N.-backed African force in Mali is due to take over from France when it starts withdrawing its 4,000 troops from the country in late April.
In a report to the 15-member Security Council, Ban recommended that the African force, known as AFISMA, become a U.N. peacekeeping force of some 11,200 troops and 1,440 police - once major combat ends.
To tackle Islamist extremists directly, Ban recommended that a so-called parallel force be created, which would work in close coordination with the U.N. mission.
Diplomats have said France is likely to provide troops for the smaller parallel force, which could be based in Mali or elsewhere in the West Africa region.
"Given the anticipated level and nature of the residual threat, there would be a fundamental requirement for a parallel force to operate in Mali alongside the U.N. mission in order to conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations," Ban wrote.
The parallel force would not have a formal U.N. mandate, though it would be operating with the informal blessing of the Security Council. The report did not specify a time limit for the mission.
The Security Council was due to be briefed on Wednesday on Ban's recommendations and diplomats hope a vote to approve the peacekeeping force can take place by mid-April.
France began a military offensive in January to drive out Islamist fighters, who had hijacked a revolt by Mali's Tuareg rebels and seized two-thirds of the West African country. Paris said Mali's vast desert North was in danger of becoming a springboard for extremist attacks on the region and the West.
In a nine-week operation French, Chadian and Malian troops have driven the Islamists into desert hideaways and mountains near the Algerian border. French President Francois Hollande said recently that Mali's sovereignty had almost been restored.
However, Islamist fighters attacked northern Mali's largest town, Gao, over the weekend. It was the third major offensive there by the rebels since the town was retaken by a French-led military operation in late January.
The African force in Mali is made up of troops mainly from West Africa, including more than 2,000 Chadians. Other than Chad's contingent, most African elements remain in the south of Mali away from the fighting.
The United Nations would only take on security responsibilities in Mali when "the necessary security and political conditions were deemed to be in place, following an assessment by the (U.N.) Secretariat."
Mali's government hopes to hold elections in July, but Security Council diplomats and U.N. officials said that goal may be overly ambitious.
Ban said that once the African soldiers become a U.N. peacekeeping force, the majority of the troops and police would operate in the north of the country, while there would be a "light presence" based in the country's capital, Bamako.
"The force would operate under robust rules of engagement, with a mandate to use all necessary means to address threats to the implementation of its mandate, which would include protection of civilians," Ban said.
"This could include the conduct of operations on its own or in cooperation with the Malian ... forces," he said.
Ban also suggested that the Security Council consider establishing an independent group of experts to investigate transnational and organized crime in Mali with the possibility of imposing punitive, targeted sanctions.
Mali was once viewed as an example of a working democracy in Africa, but its north has been a centre of cross-desert trafficking of drugs, stolen goods and Western hostages. Border towns are used as transit hubs for trans-Sahara cocaine and hashish smuggling.
Ban raised serious concerns in the report about human rights violations being committed in northern Mali, including summary executions, illegal arrests and forced disappearances, use of children by armed groups, rape, forced marriages and looting.
"Hundreds of children have been recruited by all of the armed groups active in the north, including AQUIM (al Qaeda's north African wing), Ansar Dine, MUJAO and the MNLA," he said.
"The capture and detention of children for intelligence purposes is also an emerging trend that needs to be addressed as a matter of the utmost urgency," Ban wrote.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau and Michelle Nichols; Editing by David Brunnstrom)