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UN official: No green light from Mali for UN force

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The government of Mali has not given a green light yet for a U.N. peacekeeping operation in the troubled west African nation, the U.N.'s deputy chief said Monday.

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told a group of reporters that there appears to be growing agreement — including from the African Union and west African nations — for a U.N. force, but "there is still hesitation from the government of Mali."

Last week, France asked the Security Council to consider establishing a U.N. peacekeeping operation in Mali, a move that reinforced its plan to send French troops home as soon as military operations end. It said a force would only be deployed when security conditions permit, and with approval of Mali's government.

"We do not have a clear green light from the government of Mali yet for a peacekeeping operation," Eliasson said. "But I think the trend is very much in the direction that we should move into that phase. But, of course, this phase would occur only when the combat phase is over."

Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum. That allowed secular rebel Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by the Islamists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north, including amputations for theft.

France launched a military operation Jan. 11 against the Islamist extremists after they suddenly started moving south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns.

French forces, backed by African troops, have routed the Islamists from key towns in the north, but the jihadists staged a dramatic assault on the town of Gao on Sunday. Though unsuccessful, the attack by the Islamists as well as suicide bombings and roadside bombs highlight the challenges ahead for the troops already on the ground — and a potential U.N. force.

Eliasson said the U.N. will be following developments on the ground and on the political front, say there is a need to reduce tensions between the north and the south and improve relations between the Tuaregs and the central government.

He expressed hope that eventually there will be a leadership in the north as part of a unified Mali "that would have legitimacy and would hopefully live up to the norms of human rights that we have seen so gravely violated recently."

For now, Eliasson said the U.N. is waiting to see "what kind of stabilization can be achieved" and has already been discussing the dangers that a U.N. force might face and how to deal with them.

U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because talks have been private, have said France is likely to keep a small deterrent force in Mali when a U.N. peacekeeping force is deployed to respond to new attacks.

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