France confident U.S. will not cut into Mali U.N. mission needs

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault delivers his speech during a press conference in Paris

By John Irish

GAO, Mali (Reuters) – France’s foreign minister said on Friday he was confident that the United States would not seek cuts to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, but said Paris was ready to study its efficiency as Washington reviews its overall U.N. strategy.

Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who seized northern Mali the year before. It has since deployed some 4,000 soldiers, known as the Barkhane force, across the region to hunt down Islamists.

That operation has paved way for the U.N. to deploy its more than 10,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping force to the West African state at a cost of about $1 billion a year.

A surge in violence from Islamist militants, difficulties in implementing a peace deal between the government and northern rebels and the mission’s lack of equipment and manpower have raised eyebrows at a time when Washington wants to review its funding to the U.N.

“It doesn’t mean that just because you are looking to make savings that you abandon these peacekeeping missions,” Jean-Marc Ayrault told Reuters ahead of visiting French troops in the central Malian city of Gao.

The United States is the largest contributor to the United Nations, paying 22 percent of the $5.4 billion core U.N. budget and 28 percent of the $7.9 billion U.N. peacekeeping budget. These are assessed contributions – agreed by the U.N. General Assembly – and not voluntary payments.

“As far as Mali is concerned … it’s clear that it’s an indispensable mission,” Ayrault said. “Everyone recognizes that France took the lead on this and that the peacekeeping operation would not have happened without us, so I’m not pessimistic.”

He said Paris would look objectively on how to improve things ahead of the mission renewal on June 30, but that as a whole Washington should think twice before dropping missions in high-risk areas.

Speaking at a U.N. Security Council on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley criticized the mission saying progress in stabilizing the country was stalled, equipment did not meet the standards, and that countries were too slow in committing troops.

“This is a dangerous situation. But if we act urgently, there is hope. We can – and we must – do better,” she said, adding that Washington would be “taking a careful look at the force’s mandated tasks and the distribution of its forces.”

Ayrault, whose trip to Mali comes after a French soldier was killed in clashes in the south of the country on Wednesday, will be accompanied by his German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel.

Earlier this year, Germany decided to increase its troop numbers in Mali to about 1,000 as part of MINUSMA and add eight attack helicopters.

The two ministers, who want to show that European Union member states are sharing the burden in overseas operations, are also expected to be in Bamako to pressure President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta to do more to implement a stuttering peace deal brokered in Algeria.

“It is difficult. The Algiers accords must be implemented and we are encouraging the Malian authorities to do everything they can. It’s all very fragile,” Ayrault said.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Toni Reinhold)