By Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council is considering a draft resolution to approve the creation of a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali starting July 1, which would be able to request the support of French troops if needed to combat Islamist extremist threats.
Experts from the 15 Security Council members are due to meet on Tuesday to discuss the resolution, drafted by France and obtained by Reuters, which would authorize peacekeepers and French troops to use "all necessary means" to protect civilians and stabilize key cities, especially in Mali's desert north.
The Security Council hopes to adopt the resolution, which may be revised during negotiations, by the end of April. A senior U.N. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the operation would be the fourth largest U.N. peacekeeping force and cost up to $800 million annually.
France, aided by some 2,000 troops from Chad, 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.
France has started withdrawing its 4,000-strong force and plans to have just 1,000 by the end of the year. Chad said on Sunday it would also withdraw from Mali after helping the French drive Islamists from northern towns, mountains and deserts.
Paris had said Mali's north was in danger of becoming a springboard for extremist attacks on the region and the West.
"French forces will be ready to provide support (to the peacekeepers)," said a senior Security Council diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You can't ask the blue helmets (peacekeepers) to engage in counter terrorism."
The draft Security Council resolution proposes that a U.N. peacekeeping force - to be known as MINUSMA - take over authority on July 1 from a U.N.-backed African force in Mali that has been deployed there to take over from the French forces.
DEPLOYMENT CONDITIONAL ON SECURITY
Most of the troops in the African force, known as AFISMA, are likely to become peacekeepers, diplomats say. Mali's government hopes to hold elections in July, but diplomats and U.N. officials said that goal may be overly ambitious.
The draft resolution contains a caveat that the deployment of the peacekeepers be subject to a review by the council of the security situation in Mali within 45 days of its adoption.
It said the deployment would depend on major combat operations having ceased and "a significant reduction in the capacity of terrorist forces to pose a major threat to the civilian population" in the cities and towns of the north.
The draft says that if the council determines the criteria are not met by July 1, it will review the timing of MINUSMA's deployment.
It also "calls for tangible achievements in the political process in Mali, which are of critical significance for the successful deployment and operations of MINUSMA."
The U.N. peacekeeping force, which would be authorized for an initial 12 months, would be made up of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police. French forces would be able to intervene to support MINUSMA when peacekeepers are "under imminent and serious threat and upon the request of the secretary-general."
Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been displaced by the fighting and the country's north remains vulnerable to guerrilla-style counter attacks by Islamist extremists.
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.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols)