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U.N. authorizes controversial 12,000 man Mali peacekeeping mission

The U.N. Security Council this morning authorized the creation of a new force of 12,640 U.N. peacekeepers to consolidate French military gains against Islamist militants in northern Mali.

The new force -- to be called the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Force (MINUSMA) and comprised primarily of African soldiers -- is expected to secure several northern towns, where an insurgency by Islamic militants and Tuareg separatists was recently put down by French special forces and their feeble Malian army allies.

The council's action comes as the French military -- which intervened last January in Mali at the government's invitation to repulse what they feared was an all-out offensive on the capital -- is looking to withdraw most of its forces from Mali, and to place the U.N. in command of thousands of African troops that have already deployed in Mali in support of the French operation.

But the mandate adopted by the 15-nation council reflected the continuing uncertainty about the durability of France's military successes in Mali. A July 1 timetable for transferring peacekeeping authority to the United Nations is contingent on the further assessment of the threat posed to the peacekeepers by the armed militants. Today's resolution also authorizes French troops, operating under the command of the French government, to use military force to deter any threats against the U.N. peacekeepers.

France -- which currently has about 4,000 troops in Mali -- is hoping to scale back its presence by the end of the year, leaving a more permanent force of about 1,000 troops to carry on counterterrorism operations against remnants of the insurgency, and when needed, protect U.N. peacekeepers.

The French role has proven controversial within U.N. circles. While the U.N. is grateful that France will provide a last line of protection against the insurgents, it has expressed some misgivings about the risks of being too closely associated with a military counterterrorism campaign, fearing it would expose U.N. personnel in Mali and beyond to reprisal by extremist groups.

The U.N. resolution -- which was drafted by France -- condemns the Islamists' January 10 offensive towards southern Mali and welcomes the French decision to intervene to "stop the offensive of terrorist, extremist and armed groups." But it assigns no explicit combat role for the peacekeeping mission.

The mission -- which will be headed by a U.N. special representative -- will undertake several tasks, including securing strategic towns in northern Mali, promoting reconciliation between the Malian government, Tuareg separatists, and other groups in northern Mali that denounce any affiliation with extremist groups such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The U.N. will also help Mali -- which saw a military coup last year -- prepare the ground for a democratic transition, including "free, fair, transparent and inclusive" presidential and legislative elections, to be held respectively on July 7 and July 21.

The U.N. peacekeepers will be granted limited authority to protect civilians "under imminent threat of physical violence" if they are able and if such attacks occur in the area where the U.N. is present. They will also monitor human rights violations, including those committed by Malian government forces; help protect cultural and historical landmarks; use "all means necessary, within the limits of their capacities and areas of deployment" to help the Malians; and "as feasible and appropriate" hold human rights abusers accountable for their crimes.

The resolution hints -- but does not include explicit orders -- that the U.N. could use that authority to apprehend any future suspects wanted by the International Criminal Court.

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