A United Nations peacekeeping force has taken over security duties in Mali from an African-led mission, as the country seeks stability ahead of a presidential election later this month.
In a ceremony Monday, most of the 6,000 African troops became part of the U.N. force, six months after they first deployed to help the Malian army fight the Islamists who seized control of the country's north.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized a one-year mission with up to 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police, making it one of the largest U.N. peacekeeping missions. Their task is to support Mali's political process and to protect civilians and cultural artifacts while creating conditions necessary for the deployment of humanitarian aid.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous visited the city of Timbuktu Sunday ahead of the transfer. He met with political and religious leaders and toured a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Last week, he told the U.N. Security Council that the new mission, called MINUSMA, poses "unique challenges" to peacekeepers because of Mali's climate, infrastructure and the size of the country.
Ameerah Haq, the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for field support, said it one of the most logistically challenging missions the world body has launched.
Mali plunged into chaos last year when soldiers overthrew the government, allowing ethnic Tuaregs and later al-Qaida-linked militants to take over the north. French and African troops helped drive the Islamists from major towns.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to request French military intervention if the U.N. troops in Mali are "under imminent and serious threat."