UNITED NATIONS -- China has offered to contribute troops to the new U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, where Islamist jihadists controlled the country's north until French-led troops launched an offensive in January to oust them, a U.N. official said Thursday.
Andre-Michel Essoungou, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping department, told The Associated Press that it "has received pledges and offers of contributions from a number of countries from around the world, including China."
U.N. officials and diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because no announcement has been made, said China has offered to send a civil engineering company, comprising about 150 soldiers, and is likely to send as many as 600 peacekeepers.
In late April, the Security Council authorized a U.N. force comprising 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police to replace a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali on July 1. The deployment date could be delayed if security conditions deteriorate.
Mali was plunged into turmoil after a coup in March 2012 created a security vacuum. That allowed secular rebel Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half of the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic jihadists who imposed strict Shariah law in the north, including amputations for theft.
France sent in warplanes, combat helicopters and 2,000 soldiers in January against the Islamic extremists, many linked to al-Qaida, after they suddenly started moving south into government-controlled areas and captured key towns. Backed by Chadian soldiers, French troops ousted the radical Islamic fighters from the major towns in northern Mali. But many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out suicide bombings, and Kidal, the capital of one of the three northern provinces which fell into rebel hands, is now controlled by Tuareg separatists.
U.N. diplomats said the Security Council will meet on June 25 to discuss security in Mali and decide whether to give a green light to the deployment of the new U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, starting July 1 or delay it.
The main jobs of the new U.N. force in Mali will be to stabilize key population centers in the north, support the re-establishment of government authority throughout the country, and assist the transitional authorities in restoring constitutional order, democratic governance and national unity.
The U.N.'s Essoungou said the peacekeeping department is in permanent contact with member states and troop contributors to decide how best to use troops and police for the Mali mission. Diplomats said Bangladesh has also offered troops to the new force.
China's offer of civil engineers for the Mali force is certain to be welcomed because engineering skills are in short supply.
Most of the 6,000 members of the African mission now in Mali are expected to become part of the U.N. force, but diplomats said none meet the required U.N. standards so a lot of work must be done to bring the troops' equipment and training up to standard by July.
China started making significant deployments to U.N. peacekeeping operations in 1992 when it sent a contingent to Cambodia.
At the end of April, China had 1,872 peacekeepers in nine of the U.N.'s 15 peacekeeping operations -- in Western Sahara, Congo, Darfur, Cyprus, Lebanon, Liberia, South Sudan, Ivory Coast and the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization in the Mideast. Its contribution is much larger than that of the four other permanent members of the Security Council, the U.S., Russia, Britain and France.
The Security Council also authorized the U.N. mission to help promote reconciliation between northern and southern Mali and support elections scheduled for July 28.
Diplomats said the new head of the U.N. mission, Albert Koenders, will arrive in Mali the second week in June and will be focusing on political reconciliation where initial efforts have stalled.