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Official Details French Role in Mali

French military forces will probably be needed to carry out operations against militants in Mali even after a United Nations peacekeeping force is organized to secure the country, a senior State Department official told Congress on Thursday.

"There's going to be an ongoing need for a counterterrorism operation in northern Mali, and that probably will always reside in the hands of the French and not in the hands of the United Nations," Johnnie Carson, the top State Department official on Africa issues, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mr. Carson's comments reflected extensive consultations between France and the United States regarding the military operation in Mali and suggested that there would be a longer-term role for French forces in the country. French officials declined to comment on Thursday night.

France rushed 4,000 troops to Mali in January, but French officials have said they plan to progressively hand over responsibility for the bulk of the mission to West African and Malian forces as the terrorist threat is reduced. If a Security Council resolution is approved, as expected, in the coming weeks, those units are to be supplanted by a United Nations peacekeeping force made up of African troops.

In a brief interview after the hearing, Mr. Carson sketched out how the military operation might evolve, including a likely role for French counterterrorism forces in tracking down militants in the rugged northern part of Mali.

"It would be very separate and very different," he said, making the point that while French forces might be in Mali at the same time as peacekeepers they would operate under a separate chain of command. "A bilateral agreement between the Malian government and the French government would be able to do that."

Edward R. Royce, the California Republican who is chairman of the panel, expressed concern that the mission might be handed over to the United Nations prematurely. "We do not want to do that hastily," Mr. Carson responded. "We think that over time the U.N. does have peacekeeping norms and standards that would be applicable and useful in Mali."

The United States is barred by law from providing direct support to the Malian military after the coup there last year. But it has been providing intelligence, refueling French aircraft, flying equipment and troops to the region, and helping to train West African troops.

[Source: By Michael R. Gordon, The New York Times, 14Feb13]

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