BRUSSELS The European Union is considering sending about 200 troops to train Mali's army to retake the Islamist-held north, but is not willing to deploy them in battle, EU officials said on Tuesday.
Fears are growing in Europe that the African country could turn into a platform for terrorist attacks, after Islamist fighters seized two-thirds of its territory earlier this year.
"There is a willingness among member states to put boots on the ground - but only on the parade ground," one of the EU officials said. "I haven't heard from member states a willingness to put people in the field."
The EU discussions are among international efforts to mobilize against the militants in northern Mali, which has attracted Islamists, criminal networks and Al Qaeda-linked gunmen.
The militants are recruiting hundreds of locals, including children, and a trickle of foreign fighters. The EU officials said the region was becoming a haven for traffickers - of people, drugs and cigarettes - and that this money was financing terrorists.
EU leaders said at a summit on October 19 that the Mali crisis was an "immediate threat" to Europe. Foreign ministers had called four days earlier for the EU diplomatic service to draw up a plan to help Mali's military.
Three such plans have been under consideration, said an EU official: help only with training; training plus reform of the army's structure; or both of these, plus mentoring.
The third scenario envisaged sending EU troops into combat with Malian troops. But member states are not willing to risk sending their troops into combat, said the official.
LOW MORALE, CORRUPTION
Instead, EU member states had decided that a combination of training and restructuring was the best option. Roughly 200 trainers, protected by a security force of a similar size, might be involved, said another EU official.
The Malian army had 6,000 or 7,000 troops, which were mostly badly equipped and poorly trained, and suffered from low morale, corruption and nepotism, said the official, adding: "It needs civilian control and lines of command to be made clear."
France, the region's former colonial power, drafted an October 12 U.N. Security Council resolution asking African states and the United Nations for a Mali military intervention plan led by the West African ECOWAS bloc within 45 days.
ECOWAS has intervened militarily in past African conflicts, including the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The European Union is considering help for ECOWAS with military planning and logistics, and an EU planner was already in Bamako helping on this, one of the EU officials said.
The EU diplomatic service plans to report on its plan for Mali at the next EU foreign ministers' meeting, scheduled for November 19. After that, planning could take months, or as much as a year, said one of the officials.
"We don't overestimate the speed at which we can move," he said.
Six French hostages are being held by the Islamists. President Francois Hollande is said to believe there is a risk that al Qaeda's North African arm, AQIM, is cementing its base in the West African state, creating a launch pad for an attack on French soil.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in October: "If the north collapses, if terrorist training camps spring up... it will also threaten us in Europe.
(Reporting by Sebastian Moffett, Editing by William Maclean)