AU to send counter-terrorism force in north Mali

imghe African Union will send a mission to northern Mali in the next few weeks to look into setting up a counter-terrorism force to support vulnerable UN peacekeepers, sources familiar with the matter said.
The Bamako government, as well as some officials of the UN force in Mali, MINUSMA, have called for more help in fighting al Qaeda-linked insurgents, who have become increasingly active despite the efforts of French, Malian and UN troops.
French forces drove the jihadists out of northern Malian cities in 2013 but they have regrouped, and in November al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attacked a luxury hotel in Bamako, killing 20 people in a demonstration of their ability to strike beyond their desert bases.
Critics say the 10 000-strong UN force’s ability to bring peace to Mali is hamstrung by its lack of an aggressive counter-terrorism mandate, meaning it cannot hunt down militants and is vulnerable to attack.
At least 20 Malian and UN troops from Africa have been killed this year, according to Reuters estimates.
While an expansion of the UN mandate was discussed during a Security Council visit to Mali last week, some permanent members such as France say it is already sufficiently robust, although they back additional resources for the force.
The AU initiative is being floated as an alternative route to improved security, the sources say.
“There is an (AU) mission to assess the security threats in northern Mali in the next few weeks,” said one security source familiar with the visit who is not authorised to speak publicly.
“This will allow the development of a plan for an international force in the fight against terrorism,” he added, saying the AU planned to seek UN and Malian backing.
A Western diplomat said the force’s remit would be similar to an existing AU regional task force set up last year to fight jihadist group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin.
Planning is at an early stage and details of troop numbers and financing have not yet been determined, the sources said.
AU officials at the continental body’s headquarters in Addis Ababa could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Malian defence ministry declined to comment.
Army spokesman Colonel Souleymane Maiga said: “I know that there have been recent meetings on a possible rapid intervention force but the form this force will take has not yet been decided as far as I know.”

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