New York/Paris - France on Wednesday formally asked the UN Security Council to consider the deployment of an international peacekeeping operation in Mali, once the situation on the ground allows French troops to leave that country.
French Ambassador Gerard Araud said he had requested the deployment for the first time to the 15-nation council and received assurances from council members that they would study the proposal.
"French forces won't stay in Mali and there should be a transition in the coming weeks before 'blue helmets' troops would be deployed," Araud said.
The UN is ready to deploy peacekeeping troops in Mali as soon as the situation stabilizes in the country, which could be "fairly quickly," Herve Ladsous, under-secretary-general for Peacekeeping Operations, responded.
With 2 000 soldiers from the UN authorized African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) already on the ground in Mali, the UN Security Council has yet to make a final decision on the deployment of peacekeeping troops.
The Malian government will have to make a request, even though there are "different views" in Bamako about the presence of an international force in the country, Araud said.
But Ladsous said the fact that there are already AFISMA troops on the ground shows that the operation would be welcome.
The development in New York came as President Francois Hollande said French forces, which are currently leading operations against Islamist militants, could start to pull out of the African country in March.
French forces would progressively hand over to an expected 7 700 African troops and Malian forces but would "continue to act in the north, where there are still terrorist centres", French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Metro newspaper.
France began airstrikes against rebels positions in northern Mali in January, after they began advancing south toward the capital Bamako from their northern strongholds.
French and Malian forces have driven the rebels out of the main urban areas they had controlled for nine months, but the insurgents remain active in the desert hinterland.
On Tuesday, insurgents fired rockets at the outskirts of Gao, one of three key northern Malian cities where militants were driven out by French and Malian forces in the last two weeks, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1.
A Malian military official told dpa that French forces would soon deploy from the ancient city of Timbuktu, which had been liberated last week, to Gao, in order to boost joint forces there.
Meanwhile, some 1 800 Chadian troops, helped by French forces, were guarding positions in Kidal, about 350 kilometres north of Gao.
Kidal is currently under the control of the Tuareg separatist Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular group which has welcomed French intervention.
According to Malian military sources, the MNLA had started negotiations with the al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents to free the seven French hostages they were suspected to be holding.
"I believe that France wants to use [contacts with the MNLA] to locate its nationals taken hostage by armed groups," said a Malian army officer speaking on condition of anonymity.
The French hostages are believed to be held by Islamists in the mountainous area around Kidal.
Kidal had been under the control of the homegrown insurgent group Ansar Dine - allied with the jihadist al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) -since June 2012. The MNLA retook the city last week as France launched airstrikes on Islamist positions.
Le Drian has said that "several hundred" militants had been killed since the offensive began on 11 January, mostly in airstrikes.
France lost one helicopter pilot on the first day of fighting and also had "two or three" minor injuries, he said.