AMSTERDAM/BERLIN (Reuters) - 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 replacement aircraft.
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 policing.
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)