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Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-04-02

The European Union Training Mission has begun rebuilding Mali’s fractured army so it can defend against fresh attacks by Islamists when French forces begin withdrawing in coming weeks. Islamist fighters seized control of northern Mali last year.

A European mission to rebuild Mali’s dishevelled army officially began Tuesday, less than three months after France launched a military offensive against armed rebels in the West African country.

Around 500 instructors and support staff from 22 EU states are expected to train Malian soldiers for the purpose of countering the types of extremists who quickly overran half of the expansive country last year.

Known as the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM), the group is tasked with restoring military capacity to four Malian army battalions. The operation’s initial mandate is set to last 15 months, with an estimated cost of 12.3 million euros. It will not be involved in combat operations.

“Everyone in the Malian army is aware of its weakness, the institution is ready to reform itself with the EU’s help,” said French Brigadier General François Lecointre, who heads EUTM. “There are big expectations, which Europeans must meet.”

France, Mali’s former colonial master, counts the highest number of soldiers within EUTM. The 200-troop strong French contingent includes 48 infantry instructors, 90 soldiers in charge of EUTM’s protection and other staff with logistical and medical duties. They arrived as French combat troops gradually started pulling out of the war-torn country this month.

British Secretary of Defence Philip Hammond said a 40-man training team from the UK was being sent as part of EUTM to assist Malians in restoring order and denying terrorists a safe haven in their country. “The violent insurgency has not only disrupted their country, but also poses a clear threat to national interests here in the UK,” Hammond said in a statement.

The British training team was joined by six personnel from the Republic of Ireland's Defence Force, in a military cooperation project a senior British officer called “a historic occasion”.

Officials highlighted the EUTM multinational character: Swedes and Lithuanians were among the instructors, Germans would assist as medical personnel, Belgians would pilot helicopters, while Spaniards and Czechs would help fulfil the security detail, they said.

A complete overhaul

General Lecointre noted that the EUTM would have to “completely rebuild” a Malian army that had “collapsed” after years of being snubbed and ignored. But the EUTM also appeared intent on not repeating past mistakes -- notably those committed by the United States.

The New York Times reported in January 2013 that the US poured between €400 million to €460 million into efforts to check Islamist groups from Morocco to Nigeria and had at one point praised the Malian military as an exemplary partner.

However, that all unravelled early in 2012, when a rebel offensive painfully exposed a Malian army that was underpaid, burdened with defunct weapons or others to sophisticated for its soldiers to use, and poisoned by divisions.

Tuareg separatists with an intimate knowledge of the country’s desert north and well-armed Muslim jihadists gradually drove away Mali’s army from a region roughly the size of France.

Adding to the chaos, an army captain, Amadou Sanago, led a March coup that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure. Like many soldiers in Mali, some of whom even defected to the rebellion with valuable equipment, Sanogo had received US army training.

Today no one knows exactly how many Malian soldiers are left, but estimates put the number around 6,000 men. Over the next year, EUTM says it expects to train about 3,000 Malian soldiers in a dedicated military academy located about 60 kilometres from the capital of Bamako.

By this summer, the first 670 Malians are expected to be combat-ready and will be deployed to northern Mali, where French and Chadian troops are still fighting pockets of Islamist rebels.

European officials insisted the EUTM mandate included re-establishing peace and the rule of law throughout the Malian territory, and fostering reconciliation between war-torn communities.

They also said the mission would provide training on international humanitarian law, and the protection of civilians and human rights after international observers called attention to human rights abuses perpetrated by Malian soldiers on civilians when France helped them re-establish control of central and northern towns.

Date created : 2013-04-02

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