BAMAKO/PARIS France has proposed keeping a permanent force of 1,000 French troops in Mali to fight armed Islamist militants, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday.
Fabius, on a visit to Bamako, said France was pushing ahead with plans to reduce its 4,000-strong military presence from the end of this month but planned to keep a combat force in Mali to support a future U.N. peacekeeping mission.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called last week for the deployment of a U.N. mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends.
This would include thousands of African troops already in Mali in support of France's three-month military campaign, which has swept Islamist rebels out of the towns of northern Mali and into remote desert and mountain hideaways.
Ban's plan also referred to a parallel force to tackle al Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists directly, which diplomats had said would likely be French. Paris has repeatedly warned that the Islamist enclave in north Mali posed a threat to the West and pledged to entirely eradicate it.
"France has proposed, to the United Nations and to the Malian government, a French support force of 1,000 men which would be permanent, based in Mali, and equipped to fight terrorism," Fabius said before leaving Bamako after a one-day visit.
A diplomatic source in Paris said France hoped to have the peacekeeping force approved by the Security Council within three weeks, and to have it deployed by the end of June or early July in time for scheduled presidential elections.
A clause in the U.N. resolution will allow Ban to request the rapid intervention of France's 1,000 troops, which would be deployed under a bilateral deal with Mali, the source said.
Despite widespread concerns over continuing Islamist attacks in northern Mali and the lack of an effective government presence in many areas, France is pressing its former colony to quickly organise nationwide elections to complete a democratic transition after a March 2012 coup.
"It is best that elections are held," Fabius said. "Our Malian partners say they want that and it is possible. The target is July and everything is being done to meet that deadline."
CALL FOR TUAREGS TO DISARM
Fabius called directly on the MNLA Tuareg separatist rebels, who have assisted French forces in northern Mali after Islamists fled the Tuareg stronghold of Kidal, to lay down their arms and take part in the political process.
Tuareg fighters have helped France and their Chadian allies to track down pockets of militants near Kidal. The success of an MNLA uprising early last year sparked March's military coup but the northern rebellion was soon hijacked by Islamist groups.
"All groups including the MNLA must agree to be confined to barracks and disarm," Fabius said, after meeting with Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore. "We wish to see the official reopening of negotiations."
Many observers have questioned plans for a swift reduction of France's 4,000 troops in light of the continuing Islamist insurgency and a freeze in peace talks with Tuareg rebels.
Islamist insurgents attacked the northern city of Timbuktu for the second time in a fortnight last week, promising to "open the gates of hell" when the French leave.
Mariam Diallo, an analyst with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, said the July date for the elections was not feasible and could lead to further problems.
"Everything is in chaos and trying rush the elections could be problematic," she said, adding Mali should be given time to resolve the question of displaced people and the electoral register.
Mali's Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said the gold- and cotton-producing nation was capable of meeting the timetable.
"Refugees and those displaced internally by the crisis could vote in their camps. It is technically possible," he said.
(Writing by Bate Felix and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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