* Sense of urgency in Sahara crisis mounting
* EU aims to start training mission by mid-February
By Ethan Bilby
BRUSSELS, Jan 17 European Union states will send
more than 200 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 on the Sahara crisis in Brussels on Thursday.
Western stakes in the crisis were underlined when Islamist
gunmen took dozens of foreign and local workers hostage at an
Algerian desert gas facility on Wednesday, demanding that France
pull its troops out of Mali.
EU 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," British
Europe minister David Lidington said before the meeting.
Governments fear northern Mali has now become a haven for a
variety of Islamist groups and a base for attacks on Europe.
Aside from helping Bamako restore its rule throughout Mali, they
want to stop Islamist influence from spreading in West Africa.
The trend has gathered pace since the civil war in Libya
that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 made it easier for militant
groups operating in the thinly-populated Sahara to obtain arms.
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 told reporters. "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 about 200 to 250 military trainers as well as some
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 nations of the West African
ECOWAS regional organisation. French Foreign Minister Laurent
Fabius said that meant its peers in the EU had to help more.
"You have to understand that, even though France is the
leader, all the European countries are affected by terrorism,"
he told reporters in Brussels.
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 others, EU's 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 the bloc will give
50 million euros ($66 million) of funding to the West African
force and held out the prospect of unblocking 250 million euros
in aid for Mali that was frozen after a coup in March 2012.
In return, it wants the Malian government to move quickly to
reunite the country and organise elections.