UNITED NATIONS - An African force deployed in Mali should be converted into a UN peacekeeping operation and a separate combat force created to confront Islamist threats, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

A UN-backed African force, known as AFISMA, is due to take over from France when it begins to withdraw its 4,000 troops from the West African country in late April. In a report to the 15-member Security Council, seen by Reuters, Ban recommends AFISMA become a peacekeeping force once major combat ends.

But to tackle Islamist extremists directly, Ban recommended a so-called parallel force be created. Diplomats have said France is likely to provide the troops for that force.

"Given the anticipated level and nature of the residual threat there would be a fundamental requirement for a parallel force to operate in Mali (and potentially in the sub-region) alongside the UN mission in order to conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations," Ban wrote.

France began a military offensive in January to drive out Islamist fighters, who had hijacked a revolt by Mali's Tuareg rebels and seized two-thirds of the West African country. Paris said Mali's vast desert North was in danger of becoming a springboard for extremist attacks on the region and the Wes

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