By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, June 13 (Reuters) - U.N. peacekeepers should expand further into the volatile north of Mali, beyond cities and towns, amid fears that militants will step up their attacks against international and Malian troops and threats to civilians, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.
In a report to the U.N. Security Council on the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission, Ban said a strategic review recommended the operation "expand its static and mobile presence in the north, within its means and capacities."
The one-year-old U.N. operation, however, is at only three-quarters its mandated strength of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police and lacks the mobility and air cover needed to expand beyond the population centers in the West African nation, Ban said.
Mali slipped into chaos in 2012 when al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters took advantage of a military coup in the capital, Bamako, and hijacked a Tuareg separatist rebellion to seize the landlocked country's desert north.
Four U.N. peacekeepers were killed and others wounded in a suicide attack on their base in the northern town of Aguelhoc on Wednesday. MINUSMA said a car packed with explosives was driven to the entrance of the camp and detonated.
France led a military intervention in northern Mali last year that scattered the Islamists and allowed the Tuareg separatists to retain control of parts of their northern stronghold, pending peace talks. But negotiations have largely stalled due to foot dragging by the government.
"I am deeply concerned that in the absence of a political process, terrorist groups will seize opportunities to target Malian and international forces and threaten civilians in the north," Ban wrote in the report to the Security Council.
"After initial improvements in 2013, the security situation in northern Mali has deteriorated since the beginning of 2014," he said. "The increase in incidents involving improvised explosive devices, mostly targeting Malian and international security forces, contribute to an overall sense of insecurity."
In an interview with Reuters this week, Mali Prime Minister Moussa Mara said the international community was underestimating the threat posed by Islamist fighters sheltering in areas controlled by Tuareg rebels.
Ban said contrary to initial assumptions, risks to civilians were mostly related to banditry and inter-communal violence. He said trafficking and transnational crime also added to the insecurity throughout northern Mali.
He noted that despite an increased presence of Malian troops in the north during the past year, they are hampered by serious capacity gaps and "will continue to require international assistance for the foreseeable future."
"MINUSMA may be called up to play a larger role in this area," Ban said. He urged countries that have pledged troops and equipment to the mission to deploy them as soon as possible.
The U.N. Security Council is due to renew the mandate for the mission later this month. (Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Dan Grebler)