* Diplomats say peacekeepers will be needed for Mali
* Too early to deploy blue helmets now, conflict not over
The U.N. Security Council will soon begin discussing a possible United Nations peacekeeping force for Mali, an idea the world body had been uncomfortable with before France's recent military intervention, envoys said on Wednesday.
Last month, the 15-nation council approved an African-led force for Mali that likely would have been funded through voluntary contributions and trained by the European Union. It would not have begun operations against Islamist militants that took control of northern Mali last year until late in 2013.
But France's military intervention in the West African nation to contain a new offensive by the militants this month has rendered that plan moot, diplomats say.
"There is increasing talk of moving straight to a U.N. peacekeeping operation," a senior Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. Another diplomat and U.N. official confirmed that, saying the discussions would begin within days.
Deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force would require Security Council approval. Another option is an African Union force mandated by the U.N. Security Council with logistical and other support from the United Nations, similar to the AU's Somalia mission.
One idea would be to have a U.N. peacekeeping force with some 3,000 to 5,000 troops, diplomats said, adding that details would have to be worked out later. The 3-week-old conflict is still live, which means it is too early to deploy peacekeepers, they said.
"There's no peace to keep yet," a diplomat said. "We're still in the peace-enforcement phase."
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was uncomfortable with direct U.N. involvement in the proposed African-led operation, diplomats said, because it would have been an offensive combat mission - not peacekeeping.
But now that the French-backed Malian army has retaken most of the West African desert nation's cities, the possibility of deploying U.N. peacekeepers has become less remote, envoys said on condition of anonymity.
They said a U.N. peacekeeping force would offer certain advantages over the African-led force approved by the council last month: funding would be clear, it would be easier to monitor human rights compliance and the United Nations could choose which national contingents to use in the force.
Many of the African troops already in Mali supporting the French and Malian militaries could theoretically remain and become part of a U.N. peacekeeping force, one diplomat said.
It is an idea France would likely support. Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said on Tuesday that Paris would favor a quick deployment of international monitors to Mali to ensure human rights are not abused.