French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has backed the idea of sending a UN peacekeeping force into Mali, saying France would play a role in any plan.

The UN Security Council is to begin discussing the possibility of deploying troops in the stricken West African nation, envoys said of an idea it had previously been uncomfortable with before France's recent intervention.

The French military have taken control of the airport in Kidal, the last town held by al Qaeda-linked rebels, and is planning to hand over to a larger African force, whose task will be to root out insurgents in the mountains.

Loading article content

UN envoys have said sending in a peacekeeping force would offer advantages over an African-led force, as it would be easier to monitor human rights compliance and the UN could choose which national contingents to use.

"This development is extremely positive and I want this to be carried through," Mr Le Drian said, adding France would "obviously play its role".

France has deployed some 4500 troops in a three-week ground and air offensive, aimed at breaking the Islamists' 10-month hold on towns in northern Mali. After taking back Gao and Timbuktu at the weekend, Mr Le Drian said troops were still stuck at the airport in Kidal, where bad weather was delaying them. Experts are warning of the reprisals as displaced Malians return to their liberated towns armed.

Meanwhile Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, said he was open to dialogue with autonomy-seeking Tuareg MNLA rebels if they drop any claim for independence.

But he refused to negotiate with al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents.

The Tuaregs started a rebellion in northern Mali last year that was hijacked by Islamist radicals who seized the northern two-thirds of the nation.

French and Malian forces have broken the Islamist alliance's grip over the cities of northern Mali.