(File image) French President Francois Hollande

United Nations - French President Francois Hollande was Tuesday to urge the United Nations to urgently deploy a West African-led military force to Mali to help it seize back territory from Islamist rebels.

Hollande, making his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, is hoping the meeting will mark a “turning point” on the conflict which has raged since early this year, according to officials in his office.

“We have been working for months and months on this issue, and for the first time there is a glimmer of hope,” said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, when asked whether an internationally-backed force could soon be deployed to Mali.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon has convened talks on the crisis in the Sahel region on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN meeting.

Mali has sent a letter to the United Nations formally asking authorization for a West African-led military force, which Fabius said would number about 3 000 troops.

“The Malian government wants this force,” Fabius said, adding that the letter was signed by Mali's President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and had been sent to Ban on September 18.

During a dinner late Monday, Hollande and Ban also discussed the possibility of appointing a UN envoy to Mali.

France has offered to supply logistical support for any such force, in what is a delicate situation for the former colonial power, with six French hostages held in the area by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.

The group threatened last week to execute hostages if there is any military intervention in the region.

Chaos erupted in Mali in March when military putschists seized power in the capital ousting President Amadou Toumani Toure, only to see the north and east fall to Tuareg rebels and Islamist militias amid the power vacuum.

“Let it be understood, that there is no question of deploying French troops on the ground,” Fabius stressed, denying French press reports which suggested that French special forces are already in Mali.

“It is up to the Africans, working under a UN mandate, to take the necessary action,” he said, adding that France wanted to act as a facilitator to help Mali rid itself of the terror groups.

However, there are still hurdles to overcome including defining the objectives of any forces and the terms of an agreement between the Mali government and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

ECOWAS has 3 300 regional troops on standby but wants UN approval and has been awaiting the go-ahead from Mali, which has been worried about foreign troops flooding into the capital Bamako. - Sapa-AFP