UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has vowed to pursue support for an anti-terror force gathering five Sahel nations, despite a US rebuff for UN funding.
Mr Guterres visited the headquarters of the so-called G5 Sahel on Wednesday in the central town of Sevare on the second and final day of a trip to Mali, which is battling an extremist insurgency in the Sahel.
Mr Guterres said the trip had left him with "a warm heart" and the UN would try to help Mali stage a free presidential election on July 29.
"Mali must have free elections and we will do our best to help the Malian authorities to run the elections, even if I know that the difficulties are enormous," he said during a press conference in Bamako.
Planned elections have been repeatedly postponed, in part because of security concerns over Islamist extremism.
France intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to help government forces drive Al Qaeda-linked extremists out of the north.
The initial mission was followed in 2014 by Operational Barkhane, which deployed 4,000 French troops alongside the UN's 12,000-strong Minusma peacekeeping operation in Mali.
The insurgency, however, has spread to central and southern Mali and spilled into Burkina Faso and Niger.
Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger last year agreed to set up the joint force, which would comprise 5,000 troops with a mandate to confront extremists in the vulnerable Sahel belt.
It was projected to be fully up and running in March, but its deployment has faced delays and the joint force is poorly equipped.
Mr Guterres, as well as France, has been lobbying for the force to speed up its work and pushing for UN funding, which would be in addition to technical support from Minusma.
But on May 23, the US said it opposed a Security Council mandate for the force and direct UN funding.
Despite the setback, Minusma will provide the G5 with all possible support, Mr Guterres said, adding that he was "in favour of a stronger mandate" by the Security Council for the force.
"We will put forward a very strong argument for the G5 to have the necessary financial resources and equipment to be effective", he said.
"We are also requesting [help for] development in the Sahel, because there is no peace without development."
The vast Sahel region has turned into a hotbed of lawlessness since chaos engulfed Libya in 2011, the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in 2012 and the rise of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
About €418 million (Dh1.8 billion) has been promised for the G5 Sahel, mostly by European countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. US support has been bilateral and relatively low – $60m was promised by then secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, in October.
Mr Guterres on Tuesday visited Minusma, heaping praise on the force which has suffered the most fatalities of any UN peacekeeping mission.
Minusma has 12,500 military and police personnel, but has lost more than 160 people since it deployed in 2013 – a figure that accounts for more than half of UN peacekeeping fatalities over this period.
The unrest in Mali, a former French colony, stems from a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state.
Islamist extremists linked to Al Qaeda took control of the desert north, but were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.
But insurgents remain active, linked to drug, arms and migrant trafficking in the Sahel region.