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U.N. Security Council approves creation of Mali peacekeeping force

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The U.N. Security Council unanimously approved on Thursday the creation of a 12,600-strong peacekeeping force in Mali starting July 1, which will be supported by French troops if needed to combat Islamist extremist threats in the West African country.

France, aided by some 2,000 troops from Chad, began a military offensive in January to drive out Islamist fighters, who had hijacked a revolt by Mali's Tuareg rebels and seized two-thirds of Mali.

The U.N. peacekeeping force - to be known as MINUSMA - will assume authority from a U.N.-backed African force deployed there to take over from the French. Most of the African force, known as AFISMA, are likely to become peacekeepers, diplomats say.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali will be the third largest, behind deployments in Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur in Sudan, and cost up to $800 million annually, U.N. officials say.

The resolution contains a caveat that the creation of the peacekeeping force be subject to a review by the 15-member council of the security situation in Mali within 60 days of its adoption.

France has started withdrawing its 4,000-strong force and plans to have just 1,000 by the end of the year. Paris had said Mali's north was in danger of becoming a springboard for extremist attacks on the region and the West.

French forces would be able to intervene to support MINUSMA when peacekeepers are "under imminent and serious threat and upon the request of the secretary-general," according to the resolution.

Hundreds of thousands of Malians have been displaced by the fighting and the country's north remains vulnerable to guerrilla-style counter attacks by Islamist extremists.

Mali was once viewed as an example of a working democracy in Africa but its north has been a center of cross-desert trafficking of drugs, stolen goods and Western hostages. Border towns are used as transit hubs for trans-Sahara cocaine and hashish smuggling.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Vicki Allen)

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