The United Nations is speeding up planning for a peacekeeping force in Mali as French and Malian troops steamroller into territory seized by Islamists, diplomats and officials said Wednesday.
The UN Security Council could start talks within days on moves that would probably incorporate African troops now gathering in Mali into a formal blue helmet force, diplomats said.
"There is increasing talk now of maybe moving straight to a UN peacekeeping operation. And that is one of the options the council will be looking at in the next few days," said one senior western diplomat.
UN officials said that planning for a peacekeeping force started months ago, before France intervened on January 11 to halt an Islamist advance on the Mali capital, and is now at an "advanced" stage.
After halting the advance by al-Qaeda linked groups, French troops on Wednesday entered Kidal, the last Islamist bastion in norther Mali, as part of a counter-offensive which has seen Islamist fighters disappear into the desert.
The success of the French campaign means "it might be possible to move faster than originally thought to a full UN peacekeeping operation," the western diplomat added.
Other Security Council diplomats confirmed that talks on the next move in Mali could start soon. US ambassador Susan Rice has proposed several times in council talks in recent weeks that a peacekeeping force must be considered, diplomats said.
The Security Council last month gave formal blessing to an African-led intervention force that had originally planned to support an offensive against territory taken by the Islamists later this year.
The UN leadership had initially been reluctant to give support to a military offensive. But after Ansar Dine and other rebel groups started an advance on the capital, Bamako, UN leader Ban Ki-moon praised France's "courageous" intervention.
France has said it wants to quickly get out again though and the international community is having to rewrite its plans for Mali.
Diplomats stressed there was still no agreement and that it could take weeks to get agreement on any new UN step. Peacekeepers could not take over until the offensive strikes against the Islamists are complete, they said.
A new Security Council resolution would be needed to approve any UN force.
About 5,000 African troops are scheduled to arrive in Mali in coming weeks and these could make up the core of any UN force once France declares its offensive is over, diplomats said.
A UN peacekeeping force would change funding for the troops and the mandate in areas such as human rights.
Much of the Security Council debate will be over what kind of force is approved.
Some western countries favour a traditional UN force. Some African nations would prefer a "hybrid" force as there is in Darfur, where the African Union and United Nations have joint control.
One Security Council diplomat called the hybrid style a "nightmare" as it is so difficult to make decisions.
The new council talks will also have to focus on what kind of encouragement to give to political talks.
Several European governments and UN secretary general Ban have stressed that a political accord to reconcile the Bamako government with ethnic Tuaregs and other minorities in the north will be essential for any long-term stability.