Mali future debated at Brussels meeting

French forces in Gao, northern Mali. 4 Feb 2013
Image caption French forces have led a swift campaign, sending militants into retreat

UN, European and African officials are due to meet in Brussels to discuss how to hold democratic elections in Mali in the summer.

They will also discuss the security and humanitarian situation in the wake of last year's coup and the current offensive against Islamist militants.

French and Malian forces are forcing back al-Qaeda-linked fighters who seized the vast north of the country.

The US and France want African troops to take over from French forces.

Meanwhile, French warplanes have been bombing rebel bases and depots in remote parts of northern Mali to try to cut off their supply routes.

Correspondents say the rapid progress of the French-led force has put the diplomatic focus on how to ensure lasting security in Mali.

"When a state falls apart, it takes a while to put it back together again. Nevertheless, we need to try," said one senior EU official quoted by Reuters.

"In the medium term, we need to look at ensuring the north has adequate funds for development so the communities there can build real livelihoods," the official added.

The international support group for Mali, meeting in Brussels on Tuesday, will discuss how to support a political process leading to elections that interim President Dioncounda Traore has said Mali hopes to hold on 31 July.

Image caption Tens of thousands of Malians have fled the fighting

It will also look at how to fund, equip and train an 8,000-strong African force expected to eventually take over from the French.

US Vice-President Joe Biden, speaking alongside French President Francois Hollande on Monday, said they had agreed African troops should take over "as quickly as reasonably possible".

The EU aims to send about 500 military trainers to Mali by the middle of this month.

Funding for humanitarian aid will also be debated. Aid agencies warn that food and fuel supplies to some parts of northern Mali are starting to dry up.

About 45 delegations are expected at the Brussels meeting including international lenders such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank.

EU foreign ministers have already agreed to resume sending aid to Mali gradually, having suspended it after last year's coup.

Separately in Strasbourg, MEPs will question President Hollande about the French military campaign.

Mali descended into chaos last March after Tuareg rebels took advantage of a military coup to expand their control over the vast north of the country.

Islamist militants then fell out with Tuareg separatists, seizing the area's main towns, where they imposed strict Islamic law.

The French launched their intervention on 11 January as Islamist militants threatened to march towards the capital, Bamako.

Since then, the militants have been driven from population centres in the north and east.

Kidal remains the only major town not under the control of French and Malian forces.

French troops are at the airport in Kidal but rebels from a Tuareg group who want their own homeland in northern Mali - the MNLA - still controls the town itself.

Islamist fighters are believed to have fled into the mountains around Kidal, near the Algerian border, where French forces have been carrying out air strikes against them.

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