Soldiers from a number of European Union countries have begun a mission to train Mali's national army. The West African country has been forced to seek outside help in its battle against Islamist insurgents.
The aim of the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), which started work at the military base at Koulkoro, about 60 kilometers, (40 miles) from the capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, is to give Malian forces sufficient skills so that in the long term they will be able to maintain security on their own.
France is the lead nation for the mission, which is scheduled to last about a year and at its peak is to number 550 European soldiers. France is also to provide the biggest contingent, with around 200 soldiers. Germany was to send around 80 Bundeswehr troops, about half of which were to be medics. Also contributing to the mission are Britain, Spain, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Poland.
Prior to the start of the mission, EUTM's commander, French General Francois Lecointre, said that the Europeans had a major task ahead of them.
"Objectively, [it] must be entirely rebuilt," he told the AFP news agency. "The Malian authorities are well aware of the need to reconstruct the army, very aware that Mali almost disappeared due to the failings of the institution," General Lecointre added.
It's not even clear exactly how many soldiers are in the Malian army, but AFP put the figure at around 6,000, almost half of whom are to be trained as part of the EUTM over the next year.
Not only is the army regarded as inadequately trained, but it is also ill-equipped, a complaint which at least in part led a low-ranking officer to lead a military coup against the government early last year. The coup, though, backfired, with Islamist rebels using the power vacuum in Bamako to take large swathes of northern Mali within a matter of a few days.
When the rebels threatened to advance on the capital, back in January, French President Francois Hollande responded to Mali's plea for help, sending in air force jets and thousands of combat troops to support their Malian counterparts. Within weeks, French and Malian troops succeeded in re-establishing control over most of the country, but fighting in Timbuktu over the weekend served as a reminder that the country is still far from secure.
France, which has around 4,000 soldiers in the country, is looking to reduce the number of combat troops in Mali to around 1,000 by the end of this year. The weekend's events in Timbuktu, however, appeared to cast doubt on whether that goal is realistic.
There are also doubts about whether the EU's training mission will be able to complete its work within the planned timeframe. The head of Germany's Federal Armed Forces Association, Ulrich Kirsch told ZDF public television that he thought it "extremely unlikely" that the EUTM would wrap up its work in a year's time.
"The most recent experiences have shown that such conflicts can be unpredictable," he said in an interview posted on ZDF's website.
pfd/hc (epd, AFP, ots)