UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. peacekeeping chief in Mali appealed on Thursday for a quicker deployment of troops to boost the force, which is operating at half its mandated strength of 11,200, so it can better tackle extremist groups in the north of the country.
Bert Koenders said 90 percent of the needed peacekeepers had been committed by countries including China, El Salvador and the Netherlands, but the deployment had to be sped up ahead of a planned withdrawal of some French troops by the start of summer.
France began an intervention in Mali about a year ago in a bid to drive out al-Qaeda-linked fighters, who had hijacked a rebellion by Tuareg separatists in the country's desert north after a 2012 army coup. France has several thousand troops in Mali but is planning to reduce its presence to 1,000.
But after being scattered across Mali and into neighbouring countries, Islamist groups have stepped up their operations in recent months. They have attacked U.N. peacekeepers and killed two French journalists in the northern town of Kidal.
"We have seen some very unwelcome developments in the past months, extremist groups maintain a presence and activities in the north even if weaker than before," Koenders told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council on the situation.
He told the 15-member council it was "essential that the international community continues to back without delay efforts to accelerate the generation and deployment of the remaining MINUSMA units in the north of the country."
The peacekeeping operation in Mali is known as MINUSMA.
Koenders said the council members supported an acceleration of troop deployment for MINUSMA. French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud described the deployment so far as "a bit slow."
Mali's U.N. Ambassador Sekou Kasse told the Security Council that it was important the U.N. peacekeepers be provided with "adequate means" to carry out their mandate and help re-establish state authority throughout the country, particularly in the north where he said the extremist groups were reorganizing.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)