France and its African allies want a heavily-armed force able to counter any resurgent Islamist threat in Mali as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, diplomats said.
The United Nations is considering setting up a 10,000-strong force in the former French colony before presidential and legislative elections in July, a deadline a European diplomat described on Tuesday as "a race against time".
U.N. deputy peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet is in the Malian capital Bamako this week to assess options for a peacekeeping mission once a French-led military intervention is completed.
France launched a ground and air operation in January to break Islamist rebels' hold on northern Mali, saying militants posed a risk to the security of West Africa and Europe.
In a reminder of the resistance still faced, Chad said on Tuesday one soldier had been killed and another injured, bringing to 29 the number of Chadian troops lost in battle. Six Islamists had been killed and five captured, the army said.
The proposed heavily armed rapid-reaction force, similar to the unit proposed for a U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, would be a departure from its typically more passive peacekeeper operations.
In practical terms, U.N. diplomats say, troops in the rapid-response force would have more freedom to open fire without being required to wait until they are attacked first, a limitation usually placed on U.N. peacekeepers around the world.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to deliver a report to the Security Council with peacekeeping recommendations for Mali by the end of the month, and diplomats hope a vote can take place by mid-April.
"The discussion so far in the council shows that a consensus is there (for a peacekeeping mission)," said a senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Diplomats said the vote hinged on the security situation.
French and Chadian troops have been engaged in heavy fighting in northeast Mali, where Islamist militants took refuge, and hope to secure the region by the end of the month.
France's defense ministry said on Tuesday mopping-up operations had been completed in the Adrar des Ifoghas area but they were still searching for remaining Islamist hideouts.
Paris is keen to start, as soon as next month, pulling out some of its 4,000 troops with a view to handing over to the African force, AFISMA, that would later fall under the U.N. mandate.
African leaders say they recognize there will be a French withdrawal but have stressed the need for it to be gradual.
"France will leave once it is possible," Mali's President Dioncounda Traore said during a visit to Senegal. "It is clear that France has pledged to accompany us as long as necessary."
AFISMA comprises about 6,000 troops, mainly from West Africa, including more than 2,000 Chadians. Other than Chad's contingent, most African elements remain in the south of Mali away from the fighting.
"We'd like to see the non-Chadians go north to Gao and Timbuktu so that the focus can be on the final phase in the extreme north," the European diplomat said.
"After that, we're talking about a peacekeeping force of 10,000 soldiers."
RAPID INTERVENTION FORCE
However, there are fears that militants could launch a guerrilla-style insurgency marked by suicide attacks and hit-and-run raids on towns, leaving the U.N. force exposed.
Romano Prodi, the U.N.'s special envoy to the region, said Mali's neighbors also feared contagion.
A rapid-reaction force to counter this threat in Mali could retain battle-hardened Chadian troops, but also include elements from new forces such as Burundi, which has played a key role in fighting Islamists in Somalia.
France's role in that framework has yet to be defined, but diplomats say talks center on French elements being based either in Mali or elsewhere in the region and intervening if needed.
"It would be under French control, but approved by the United Nations," said the European diplomat.
Financing is also an issue with $450 million pledged last month to fund African and Malian operations yet to materialize, leaving a burden on AFISMA countries, diplomats said.
A U.N. official said Security Council authorization of the deployment would take at least two months.