By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS, May 12 (Reuters) - The United Nations has shelved plans to deploy surveillance drones as part of its peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast due to improved security, but is now seeking a company to provide the unarmed aircraft for its peacekeeping mission in Mali.
The United Nations wants to expand its use of unmanned aerial vehicles after it successfully deployed the aircraft for the first time in December - to aid U.N. peacekeepers in Democratic Republic of Congo.
It has called for companies to submit expressions of interest to provide surveillance drones for Mali, based in the northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao. The deadline is Wednesday, according to the request by the United Nations.
"It is expected that contracts will be for a period of 3 years," it said. "UAV capability should provide long endurance and be able to fly long range to a point of interest, loiter on patrol and return to base."
Al Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked a rebellion by Tuareg separatists in the Mali's desert north after a 2012 army coup.
France began an intervention more than a year ago which scattered the insurgents across Mali and into neighboring countries, but in recent months the Islamist groups have stepped up their operations.
A U.N. peacekeeping force, known as MINUSMA, assumed authority on July 1 from a U.N.-backed African force in Mali. But while the U.N. Security Council mandated a 12,600-strong force, there are only some 7,500 troops on the ground.
In Ivory Coast the United Nations is gradually reducing the size of its peacekeeping force. The world's top cocoa grower is emerging from a decade of political turmoil that ended in a brief post-election civil war in 2011 when former president Laurent Gbagbo rejected the victory of rival Alassane Ouattara.
"The deployment of UAVs in (Ivory Coast) may no longer be warranted due to changed operational requirements and an improved security situation," said one U.N. peacekeeping official familiar with the issue.
"Their deployment has been put on hold until further notice and consultations with the government continue," he said.
The West African country had asked the United Nations to consider deploying drones along its border with Liberia to offset the planned reduction in peacekeepers. Western Ivory Coast had been the target of deadly raids blamed on supporters of Gbagbo.
Ivory Coast's defense minister, Paul Koffi Koffi, told Reuters that a final decision on the deployment of the surveillance drones by the United Nations would likely be made in June.
"There were some differences of opinion, but it is still in discussion," he said. (Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)