France Maps Out Mali Exit as UN Plans for Peacekeepers

France is mapping out its exit strategy for Mali as the United Nations solidifies plans to turn African forces into UN peacekeepers securing towns recaptured from Islamist militants.

Backed by Malian and African forces, French soldiers have seized the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. France plans to start withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops “in a few weeks,” Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe1 radio.

“French forces won’t stay in Mali and there should be a transition in the coming weeks,” French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud said today in New York after presenting the request for the peacekeeping mission to the UN Security Council. “Security conditions must naturally be in place” before a UN peacekeeping force takes over.

France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 to help Mali restore state control over a nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. About 3,800 African troops have arrived to bolster the drive against insurgents who occupied almost two-thirds of the landlocked West African nation.

France hasn’t indicated what role it wants to play in peacekeeping and whether it will leave behind a military contingent.

“We are already working on different possible scenarios,” UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters today in New York.

While President Francois Hollande got a boost in public opinion ratings from intervening militarily to drive Islamists rebels out of Mali, his debt-laden government doesn’t want to bear the cost and burden of keeping the land-locked African country stable.

So far France’s “Operation Serval” has cost “several tens of millions of euros,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with the Metro newspaper.

Mali’s $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It’s expected to expand 4.5 percent this year, the IMF said on Jan. 28, as gold mining in the government-held south continued during the conflict. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the miners in Mali.

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