EUROPEAN Union countries yesterday agreed to send up to 250 military personnel to train Mali government forces in the fight against Islamist rebels.
The training mission has been under discussion for weeks but became more urgent after the al-Qaeda-linked rebels pushed beyond their stronghold in northern Mali to threaten the capital Bamako, leading France to intervene last week.
EU foreign ministers gave the go-ahead at an emergency meeting in Brussels yesterday morning. European governments intend to train the Malian army – wracked by political divisions and a series of defeats to the rebels – but have no plans to broaden the mission to a combat role.
“Alongside the military response which the French are leading, we need to work on training Malian forces so they are able to exercise control over their own territory,” the UK’s Europe minister David Lidington said before the meeting.
Malian foreign minister Tieman Coulibaly, who travelled to Brussels to brief European foreign ministers, pleaded for help. “A country like mine with limited resources needs assistance,” he said. “We need an international coalition: civilisation versus terrorism – that’s what we need.”
The EU’s mission, which it aims to launch by mid-February, will comprise between 200 and 250 military trainers, as well as some security personnel.
It will provide basic battle training, advise the Malian authorities on command structure and logistics, and instruct them on matters such as dealing with prisoners. They will not advise Malian soldiers in battle.
“We will not go north. We will stay in the training areas,” a senior EU official said.
France is eager to transfer leadership of its operation to Malian troops and forces promised by the Economic Community of West African States.
French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said that meant its peers in the Europe had to help more. “You have to understand that, even though France is the leader, all the European countries are affected by terrorism,” he said.
Britain is giving France logistical support for the Mali operation.
Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said Berlin was providing planes to move West African troops.
Several other countries, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, were also ready to help France.
“On the military support, there were a number of countries who made it very clear to France that they would be willing to help France in every way,” she said. “They did not rule in or rule out any aspect of that, including military support.”
EU development chief Andris Piebalgs said Brussels will give 50 million euros of funding to the West African force and held out the prospect of unblocking 250m euros in aid for Mali that was frozen after a coup in March 2012.
French troops surrounded the Malian town of Diabaly yesterday, keeping Islamists rebels who had seized it three days ago bottled up while a West African military force took shape.
The French held back from launching a full-out assault on the town as the rebels had taken refuge in the homes of civilians.
“The Islamists are still in Diabaly. They are very many of them,” said one woman who fled the town with her three children overnight. “Every time they hear a plane overhead, they run into homes, traumatising the people.”
French forces now total about 1,400 troops, defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said yesterday, and the number is expected to rise to 2,500.
The vanguard of around 900 Nigerian troops was due to arrive in Bamako yesterday in the first wave of a 2,000-strong African force to fight alongside the French.
A convoy of armoured vehicles, fuel tankers and ambulances and about 200 soldiers from Mali’s eastern neighbour, Niger, was also positioned at the border, witnesses said.