Malian soldiers patrol the streets of Gao, northern Mali.

United Nations -

A UN peacekeeping mission that the major powers want for Mali will need several years to sort out the West African country's problems, diplomats and experts have warned.

On top of a feared guerrilla campaign by al-Qaeda linked militants, the UN troops who take over from a French-African force also face a major task reconciling the Bamako government with ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali.

France is pursuing attacks against Islamist militants in the north while working on a UN Security Council resolution that would set up a peacekeeping force, UN diplomats said.

While detailed planning is underway, the force's size, makeup and mandate cannot be decided until France ends military strikes and decides its future military presence in the country, diplomats said.

French troops arrived on January 10 to halt a rebel surge toward the capital Bamako. With remnants of the Malian army, they have since retaken several towns in the north, including the shrine city of Timbuktu.

President Francois Hollande has said he wants to get French forces out quickly but will stay “as long as it takes.” Hollande and US Vice President Joe Biden said this week they want a quick transition to a UN force.

The UN mission could get an initial mandate of 12 months, said one UN diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of ongoing negotiations.

“But clearly this cannot be sorted out in that time. There are major problems between the government and the Tuaregs, so the UN will be there for several years,” the diplomat said.

“It's going to take years to achieve the end outcome. But I hope it will only take months to achieve a secure enough environment,” said a European Union official in Brussels. EU military trainers are expected to start arriving in Mali next week.

West African nations have already offered more than 7 000 troops to a force for Mali, which is only slowly gathering in Bamako.

Many could be used in the UN force, but Security Council talks so far have focused on a force of about 5 000, diplomats said.

If the 15-member Security Council holds a vote by the end of February, the UN estimates that it would take another 45-60 days to get the African force put under full UN command.

By that time the remaining rebel strength will be clearer but Mali will then be into its hot and rainy season.

Diplomats said France has yet to decide whether it will put troops in the UN force. It could also maintain a military presence in Mali alongside UN troops as it does in Ivory Coast, where they played a key role in ending unrest in 2011.

Mali's transitional government has opposed a UN force, questioning the mandate it will perform. But western diplomats say this resistance is “weakening”.

Other African leaders have sought a joint African Union-United Nations force, as there is in Sudan's Darfur. But some UN officials and western diplomats say the Darfur force is a bureaucratic “nightmare” that should not be copied.

Security Council control of the force will allow the powers to put a maximum level on the force. “We need to improve the quality and reduce the numbers,” said a second UN diplomat.

The United States and European nations have also insisted that any UN mission have a strong political element.

The Malian army has been accused of carrying out reprisal killings against Tuareg and Arab residents in northern towns it has retaken. It will also have to help the Malian government, still rocky after a military coup in March last year, to re-establish its authority.

“The United States has always had doubts about a purely West African force, and believes that a UN mission will be more sustainable and better prepared for long-term state-building activities,” said Richard Gowan of the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon “will insist that there should be a real political reconciliation process for the peacekeepers to support, as the alternative is an endless mission like that in Democratic Republic of Congo,” he added.

Gowan said UN officials had concerns that the peacekeepers will become “soft targets for Islamist insurgents.”

He said the UN will call for surveillance drones and many helicopters for the operation but is likely to be rebuffed as Western governments want to keep costs down. - Sapa-AFP