* Dutch to withdraw helicopter contingent from Mali
* United Nations struggling to find replacement
* Aircraft protect peacekeepers, transport wounded
AMSTERDAM/BERLIN, Oct 7 The Dutch government
said on Friday it would continue its peacekeeping mission in
Mali in 2017 but will withdraw its helicopter contingent at the
start of the year, leaving the United Nations struggling to find
Canada was mentioned as a potential supplier of the
helicopters after the United Nations first announced the Dutch
intention to remove their helicopter forces in July. But Ottawa
has not made a firm commitment.
Germany, which is counting on the helicopter force to
protect the 570 soldiers it has stationed in Mali, is concerned
it may have to fill the gap, requiring the deployment of up to
300 more troops to the African country.
U.N. peacekeepers are deployed across northern Mali to try
to stabilize the vast region, occupied by separatist Tuareg
rebels and al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in 2012 before
France intervened in 2013.
The Dutch government said its mission in Mali would consist
of 290 soldiers, down from 400, mostly focused on analysis and
The Dutch military has been operating Apache attack
helicopters to protect the peacekeepers and transport
helicopters to evacuate sick or wounded soldiers.
Military sources say time is running short to find a country
to supply replacement helicopters as it takes months to prepare
such a mission.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is to visit German troops in
northern Mali on Sunday during a visit to Africa aimed at
promoting economic development and curbing migration.
U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security
Council about the Dutch decision on Thursday and said no other
country had stepped up to supply replacement aircraft despite
"extensive efforts" by U.N. officials.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters
last week: "The helicopters are existentially important for the
protection of our soldiers and for the effectiveness of the
mission, meaning how far the soldiers can range away from the
base in Gao."
Mali's government has not had a military presence in the
restive northern region of Kidal since clashes between the army
and Tuareg rebels killed 50 soldiers there in 2014, leaving a
heavy security burden on U.N. troops.
Mali has become the deadliest place to serve for U.N.
peacekeepers. The United Nations says more than 100 peacekeepers
have been killed since the U.N. mission MINUSMA deployed in July
2013. The U.N. Security Council voted in June to increase the
contingent by 2,500 troops, taking the total number of uniformed
personnel to more than 15,000.
(Reporting by Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Andrea Shalal in
Berlin; additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York;
Editing by Janet Lawrence)