German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Friday urged lawmakers to support an expanded peacekeeping mission for the German armed forces in Mali, a country she described as "holding the key" to stability in West Africa.
The German Bundestag is set to approve next week an expansion of the Bundeswehr's contribution to the United Nation's peacekeeping mission in Mali. The expansion would increase the number of German soldiers in the UN's MINUSMA mission from 650 to 1,000.
Von der Leyen told a parliamentary debate on the deployment that it would be the most challenging as well as the most dangerous for the German military.
The German reinforcements largely cover the deployment of pilots and support crew for four rescue helicopters and four attack helicopters to provide protection. The German plan to deploy helicopters comes as the Dutch will pull out seven transport and attack helicopters in February.
The UN has deployed 13,000 blue helmets under the MINUSMA mission, one of the most dangerous UN missions in the world. MINUSMA's main responsibility is to monitor a fragile peace accord signed in June 2015 between the Malian government and several rebel groups in the lawless north.
It is also tasked with providing security and stability for civilians, for which it is authorized to use force.
The risk posed to German troops was highlighted this week when an al-Qaeda linked suicide bomber killed nearly 70 former rebels and pro-government militia men who were part of a peace accord. The blast occured in Gao, a northern former rebel stronghold where the German army contingent to the UN mission is based.
All parties in the Bundestag support expanding the mission except the opposition Left Party.
Christine Buchholz, a defense spokesperson for the Left Party, warned that the Bundeswehr risked entering a war with "insurgents." Questioning whether or not there was even peace in the country, she said the UN mission was at risk of becoming a party to the conflict.
Mali descended into a spiral of instability in 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and other groups look advantage of a power vacuum left by a military coup in the capital Bamako to take over northern Mali in a bid for independence.
But the rebellion for Tuareg autonomy was quickly highjacked by Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda aligned groups. These were strengthend by a flood of arms and instability following the international intervention that helped oust Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
The jihadist advances led former colonial power France to intervene in January 2013. France largely pushed back the jihadists but they remain capable of carrying out attacks.
While the French intervention has ended, French soldiers remain as part of a larger counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region. The UN deployed a peacekeeping mission in July 2013 to replace the French mission.
The June 2015 peace accord was signed between the Malian government and Taureg rebels and other northern rebel groups, but excludes jihadists.
Germany first increased its involvement in Mali in January last year after the Bundestag approved an increased mandate from 150 to 650 troops. The troop boost came in response to the November 2015 terror attacks in Paris. The goal at the time was to lift some of the burden off France as it focused greater resources on the so-called Islamic State.
Most of the current 650 German soldiers in the MINUSMA provide surveillance capabilities, including through unmanned drones and armored reconnaissance tanks. The Bundeswehr also has about 300 soldiers in the south of the country participating in an EU military training mission.
cw/rt (AFP, AP, dpa, epd)