United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said Mali could collapse if a UN peacekeeping mission withdrew, but suggested an option could be an African Union force backed by a tougher operating mandate.
Guterres made the suggestion in an interview with the French radio station RFI ahead of a key decision on the future of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali.
The Security Council next month is to determine whether to renew the mandate of the Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), one of the UN's biggest peacekeeping operations.
"The true situation is that without MINUSMA, the risk of the country's collapse would be enormous," Guterres said in the interview, broadcast on Wednesday and Thursday.
"I am not going to propose that this mission be ended because I think that the consequences would be terrible.
"But it (MINUSMA) is operating in circumstances that really call for (not) a peacekeeping force but a strong force (entrusted with) enforcing peace and fighting terrorism," he said.
"This strong force has to be an African force, from the African Union, but with a Chapter Seven Security Council mandate and obligatory financing," he said.
Chapter Seven of the United Nations Charter permits use of armed force in the event of a "threat to the peace."
MINUSMA, which has a current deployment of 14,000 troops and police, was created in 2013 to help support the fragile Sahel country in its fight against jihadist insurgents.
But the force has often been criticised for being shackled by a mandate that has left it unable to intervene robustly.
As a result, the security onus is thrust on Mali's poorly-equipped armed forces, in this view.
Most of the contingents in MINUSMA come from African governments.
Next month's decision comes in the context of a breakdown in relations between Mali and its traditional ally, France, which over the past nine years has stationed thousands of troops in the troubled Sahel state, backed by helicopters, jets and drones.
Those forces are being withdrawn from Mali after the two countries fell out following a military coup in August 2020.