AMSTERDAM/DAKAR (Reuters) - The head of the United Nations' mission in Mali is to quit to take up a new job as the Netherlands' foreign minister, the Dutch government said on Tuesday, opening up a vacancy in the west African nation at a time of growing instability.
Bert Koenders, 56, an economist and civil servant who has been based in the Malian capital Bamako for just over a year, will replace Frans Timmermans, who is leaving The Hague for Brussels to become a vice-president of the European Commission.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission he has headed is trying to stabilise the vast desert region of northern Mali after French troops drove out separatists and al Qaeda-linked rebels last year.
After an initial period of stabilisation, the mission has been left exposed in recent months as France reorganised its counter-terrorism operation across the region and Malian government troops withdrew from northern towns after being defeated by rebels in May.
Thirty-one U.N. troops have been killed and 91 wounded since the mission was deployed in July 2013. Attacks by rockets, roadside bombs and mines have increased in recent months.
The U.N. mission is mainly made up of an African force that was already deployed in Mali last year.
Diplomats say Koenders was instrumental in convincing his home government to dispatch some 450 special forces troops and intelligence operatives and to send attack helicopters to bolster the mission.
Koenders, sent to Mali after two years leading a U.N. mission in neighbouring Ivory Coast, has been a key figure in trying to push forward Algerian-hosted peace talks between the Bamako government and those rebels that have distanced themselves from extremist groups.
"The Algerians are firmly in the lead. But Koenders was the next most important among the coalition of mediators," a Bamako-based diplomat told Reuters.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. mission said it was too early to comment on Koenders' departure.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy