France Wants U.N. To Take Over Peacekeeping Mission In Mali

France has been fighting Islamic insurgents in the African nation of Mali for over two months. Paris has recently called for a U.N. peacekeeping mission to take over for the French. The U.N. Security council will meet next week to discuss the situation in the former French colony. Robert Siegel talks to Anthony Banbury, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support, about his recent trip to Mali.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the past year, Mali has been the scene of a military coup in the capital, Bamako, a breakaway movement in the vast inland north of the country, big military gains there by radical Islamists, and a French military intervention. France and Britain are now training Malian troops. France wants the U.N. to takeover with a peacekeeping mission and next week, the U.N. Security Council will take up that and other questions about Mali.

The organization will get a report from Anthony Banbury, who has just returned from a trip to Mali. Mr. Banbury used to work on the U.S. National Security Council and he's now the U.N. assistant secretary-general for field support.

Welcome to the program.

ANTHONY BANBURY: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, from what you've seen in Mali, is that country in need of peacekeeping or is there still so much counterinsurgency war fighting to be done that talk of peacekeeping is premature or euphemistic at best?

BANBURY: The biggest difficulty right now in Mali is that there are so many multiple crises to deal with at the same time. So it needs a lot of help in different areas. Certainly there is a requirement for continued offensive combat operations. But there will certainly be a point, or at least we all hope there will be, in the not-too-distant future, where a stabilization mission would be possible.

SIEGEL: I've heard the French speak of a timeframe of two months. Is that realistic?

BANBURY: I think it needs to be conditions-based. We need different tools for different to apply to different problems. And you need one kind of operation for the combat. And when that's more or less stabilized, then we can have a different kind of force. So it depends more on the conditions than the time.

SIEGEL: You were also, of course, in the north of the country. What did you see there? And how do you weigh the threats posed by Malians in the north, as opposed to the threats posed by foreign fighters in Mali?

BANBURY: A team and I, we went to Timbuktu briefly and then to the city of Gao, which has been a center of a lot of the fighting. In Timbuktu, at the airport, it was basically a civilian airport that used to receive flights from Europe full of tourists. There were, you know, check-in/check-out areas, baggage carousels, things that would look very familiar to any American traveler but it was all shot out and blown up. And it was really sad to see how much destruction had been wrought to this historical city.

In Gao, the airport is now a big French military base. That's really where they're running a lot of their operations out of. It has the feel of a very temporary presence there. They're about getting the business done and then I think they'd like to move on when it's possible.

SIEGEL: And the people they're fighting, are they Malian or are they mostly foreigners?

BANBURY: It's a real combination. I think the French and others have been surprised at how organized these groups of been; the amount of armaments, munitions, vehicles, cash, computers, fuel depots that they have found and the French have destroyed. And clearly there's a very heavy foreign influence among these groups.

A lot of the foot soldiers, though, are really just soldiers of fortune. And the groups are led by some diehard extremists at the top but the foot soldiers are switching from one to another depending upon the conditions of the day.

SIEGEL: How strong are the jihadist groups that are fighting against the French and the Malians?

BANBURY: They're quite strong and they get a lot of money from drug running, kidnapping Westerners, smuggling. They're very adaptive. And so, wherever they get pressure they find a way to kind of slip away, and then regroup and come back in a different form in a different location. And that's really the persistent threat that is proving and will continue to prove, I think, quite challenging to deal with.

I think the United Nations is going to need to be committed and engaged in Mali for quite some time to come.

SIEGEL: Well, what's the likelihood that it simply will degenerate into a failed state, that it's the next Somalia?

BANBURY: That is very much a risk that things will get worse. And we have to get it right in Mali. We have to do the right thing but it's going to take a strong effort. And it's going to take resources and commitment.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Banbury, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

BANBURY: Thank you very much, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: That's Anthony Banbury, who is U.N. assistant secretary-general for field support. He returned recently from Mali. The U.N. Security Council takes up Mali next week.

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