Updated at: 04/04/2013 3:06 PM
By PAUL SCHEMM
(AP) RABAT, Morocco - French troops would take part in a proposed U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali after they end their task of clearing al-Qaida-linked rebels out of the African country’s vast northern region, France’s president said Thursday.
Francois Hollande made the announcement as he spoke before Morocco’s parliament, part of a two-day visit celebrating the two nations’ close cooperation.
"France will soon complete its mission (in Mali) in a few weeks and African forces will take over," Hollande said. "The Security Council is going to deploy a peacekeeping operation and France will play its part."
He said that scenario was based on the condition that an "indispensable" dialogue take place between various Malian factions and the Mali government in Bamako and on the resumption of the democratic process there. Elections in Mali are planned for July.
There are currently two proposals in front of the U.N. for peacekeeping operations, including giving the lead to an African-led force currently on the ground or authorizing a full U.N.-led force of 11,200 troops that would conduct combat operations and operate alongside a non-U.N. force that would continue counter-terrorism operations.
Mali 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 of the country’s vast north as a new homeland. But months later, their struggle was co-opted by jihadists who imposed strict Islamic law in the north.
France launched a military operation on Jan. 11 against the Islamic extremists, many of whom are linked to al-Qaida, after they began moving south and captured key towns. Backed by Chadian troops, the French ousted the militants from major towns in northern Mali, though many went into hiding in the desert and continue to stage attacks.
Hollande said last week that the first of France’s more than 4,000 troops in Mali will pull out in late April and, by July, the French contingent will be down to 2,000 soldiers. He said just 1,000 will remain by the end of the year.
Hollande took the opportunity Thursday to describe Morocco’s autonomy plan for the Western Sahara region it annexed beginning in 1976 as "credible" and emphasized that "everything had to be done to improve the living conditions of people in that region."
With instability in Mali and the ongoing situation in Western Sahara, the French leader emphasized the need to address the conflicts in the region. Such conflicts are "feeding the chain of instability and terrorism," he said in a press conference after speaking to parliament.
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