A U.N. peacekeeping force has taken over security duties in Mali from an African-led mission, as the country seeks stability ahead of this month's presidential election.
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 Islamist militants who seized control of the country's north.
Head of the U.N. mission to Mali, Bert Koenders, said Monday in Bamako that African troops already on the ground in Mali will have four months to get up to speed on U.N. peacekeeping norms.
Koenders said they will also be trained and equipped for their mission, whose mandate allows for "robust action."
Koenders says the U.N. contingents will gradually deploy to the principal towns in northern Mali where they will patrol alone and alongside the Malian army. He said the force will work to minimize the risk to civilians.
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 undersecretary-general for field support, said it is 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."