EU foreign ministers are to meet in Brussels for an emergency meeting about the situation in Mali. The session comes as the EU fears the possibility of revenge terrorist attacks for its involvement in the conflict.
European Commission Vice President Catherine Ashton scheduled the emergency meeting earlier in the week to pave the way for logistical and humanitarian support to Mali.
Speaking in Brussels, the day before the session, Ashton stressed that not only West Africa, but the EU itself faced dire consequences if they didn't work together quickly to uproot the radical Islamists in northern Mali.
"There have been horrific abuses of human rights, the desecration of holy and cultural sights, the trampling of political and religious freedom and a threat posed to all neighboring countries," she said.
A hostage crisis in Algeria, she added, highlighted how the conflict had already impacted the EU. Islamist gunmen from northern Mali took 41 foreigners hostage at a natural gas field in southeast Algeria on Wednesday morning.
"[The radical groups] have taken many hostages," said Ashton. "Many of them originated from European member states. So, under no circumstances, can we be indifferent to the situation."
The hostages included Norwegian, Japanese, British, French and American nationals. The gunmen killed one British national and one Algerian during the initial assault, according to the Algerian interior ministry.
No negotiations have yet been made with the group.
EU sees obligation to support Mali
The EU foreign ministers are scheduled to discuss, among other things, plans for a training mission for Mali's military, humanitarian aid and further logistical support.
On Wednesday, Germany sent two Transall military transport planes to fly troops of the 15-nation West African bloc, ECOWAS, to the Malian capital Bamako. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also announced Germany's pledge of one million euros ($1.3 million) in humanitarian aid for Mali civilians fleeing the unrest. It would be delivered mainly via the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe.
The West-African bloc ECOWAS has received a UN mandate to send 3,300 troops into Mali in the coming days.
French troops set to engage in combat
On Wednesday, ECOWAS leaders in the Malian capital Bamako finalized plans to deploy African troops into the war-torn country. Chad pledged to send 2,000 soldiers and Nigeria, 900.
While the West African troops prepared for deployment, French soldiers on the ground advanced closer to the central cities of Diabaly and Konna, where they reportedly exchanged fire with Islamist rebels who had taken the cities earlier in the week.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed that troops were poised to enter into direct combat for the first time, saying Diabaly was home to "the toughest, most fanatical and best-organized groups."
In early 2012, the al Qaeda-linked Islamists had gradually taken over northern Mali, which is comparable to the size of France, after a military coup had plunged the region into chaos.
kms/rc (Reuters, AFP, dpa)