The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously Wednesday to authorize the UN peacekeeping force in Mali to expand its protection of civilians in the volatile north from cities to rural areas and give priority to launching political negotiations and promoting national reconciliation.

The resolution adopted by the council underscores the need to address the underlying causes of recurrent crises in Mali and start peace talks between the government and all communities in the north.

Northern Mali fell under control of ethnic Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but the Tuaregs have pushed back against the authority of Mali’s new government, based in the capital Bamako.

Tensions escalated sharply last month when Mali's new prime minister visited the key northern town of Kidal for the first time.

Tuareg rebels launched an assault on government buildings, killing eight soldiers, six local government officials and two others in what the government described as a "declaration of war." The African Union mediated an uneasy cease-fire.

The Security Council strongly condemned the violent clashes in Kidal and said it remains concerned at "the fragile security situation" in the north and continuing terrorist activities in the Sahel region, including by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The resolution extended the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force until June 30, 2015, and maintained its current ceiling of 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 police. But its strength is significantly lower — 8,280 military personnel and 980 police, the vast majority deployed in major towns in the north.

The Security Council authorized the force to expand its presence to rural areas where civilians are at risk, including through long-range patrols.

The council also authorized a new focus on the difficult political situation, expressing concern at the failure of the government, the Tuaregs and other groups in the north to launch peace talks.

It urged the parties "to engage in good faith and without delay in a credible and inclusive negotiation process."