04/25/2013 16:42 GMT
by Andre Viollaz
United Nations, April 25, 2013 (AFP) - The UN Security Council on Thursday unanimously agreed to send a 12,600-member international force to Mali to take over from French and African troops battling Islamist guerrillas.
The United Nations is aiming for a July 1 start by the new force, but the 15-nation council will decide later whether the conflict has eased enough for the handover.
"We know its going to be a fairly volatile environment," UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters after the vote.
Mali called French troops into the country in January to halt an Islamist advance on the capital Bamako. French and African troops have since pushed the Al-Qaeda-linked militants into desert and mountain hideouts, from where they are now staging guerrilla attacks.
France is winding down its force from its peak of nearly 4,500 but is to keep up to 1,000 troops in Mali and they will maintain responsibility for military strikes against the Islamists.
UN Resolution 2100 authorizes France to intervene if the UN troops are "under imminent and serious threat and at the demand" of UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
"Our soldiers still in Mali will be able to come to the support of the peacekeeping operation if circumstances demand," France's President Francois Hollande said in a statement welcoming the UN resolution.
The resolution also says the new UN force should use "all necessary measures" to stabilize major cities, protect civilians and help the government extend its authority over the vast West African nation.
But Mali remains unstable with Tuareg rebels still refusing to disarm. And UN officials acknowledged the dangers facing the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, to be known by its French acronym MINUSMA.
"In an environment that will certainly see assymetric attacks, the stabilization mission will have to defend itself and its mandate depending on circumstances," said UN peacekeeping chief Ladsous.
In a recent report on Mali, Ban said the new UN mission would face "significant threats" including "terrorist groups and tactics, the proliferation of weapons, improvised explosive devices, unexploded ordnance and landmines."
The UN force will have a maximum of 11,200 soldiers and 1,440 police, most of whom will come from the 6,300 troops from 10 African nations already in Mali. About 150 French soldiers will join MINUSMA.
The Security Council will decide over the next 60 days if there has been a "cessation of major combat operations by international military forces" and "a significant reduction in the capacity of terrorist forces to pose a major threat" so the UN mission can start on time.
Mali's army launched a coup in March 2012, which unleashed the chaos that allowed Tuareg rebels and their erstwhile Islamist allies to take over the north of the country and impose brutal Islamic rule.
Many shrines in Timbuktu and other cities were destroyed, and public executions and amputations staged.
The UN mission will help to retrain Malian security forces and will also play a key role in political efforts to rebuild the enfeebled Malian state.
They will help Malian transitional authorities organize "inclusive, free, fair and transparent" presidential and legislative elections and help start "an inclusive national dialogue and reconciliation process."
A special representative for Mali will be named to direct the mission.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Hubert Coulibaly called the resolution "an important step in the process to stem the activities of terrorist and rebel groups."
Widespread doubts have been expressed however about the government's ability to hold elections by the target date of July 31.
The UN will have to help overcome deep mistrust between the Bamako government and Tuareg and Arab minorities. The international community is also concerned about the lingering influence of the Mali coup leaders over the transitional government.