EU to train over 2,500 Malian soldiers from April: general

EU military instructors will train more than 2,500 Malian soldiers starting April 2, a bid to get the crisis-torn country's army ready to maintain security as French troops leave, the head of the mission said Wednesday.

The European Union Training Mission (EUTM) for Mali is tasked with helping an army in need of a "major overhaul", said General Francois Lecointre, as French-led forces continued working to secure the north of the country from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

The EUTM will run two-month trainings for four battalions of 650 to 700 troops each, Lecointre told journalists in the Malian capital Bamako after signing a series of agreements with Mali's army chief of staff paving the way for the mission.

Lecointre said Malian commanders were "fully aware of the dilapidated state of the army", and praised their "transparency" in acknowledging the problems facing the under-funded and deeply divided military.

"The objective is to allow the Malian army to acquire the combat capacity needed to face the internal threat while contributing to the stability of the entire region," said the Malian chief of staff, General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele.

"It's a complicated objective," he added. "But chasing the terrorists from Malian territory without training the army to restore its operational capacity would be like treating the symptom without knowing the cause of the disease."

A total of 200 instructors backed up by some 300 protection and support troops will be on the ground by mid-March and then launch training courses at a military academy in the town of Koulikoro, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of Bamako, Lecointre said.

The training will also include a component on human rights, he added. Rights groups have accused Mali's army of abuses including summary executions of Arabs and Tuaregs seen as supporting the rebels.

At least 16 of the EU's 27 members will take part, each funding its own contingent, Lecointre said.

The EU is providing a 12.3-million-euro ($16.4-million) budget to cover general operating costs and the expansion of infrastructure at the Koulikoro military academy, but the overall cost of the mission will be "much greater", he added.

The EU will not provide any equipment.

Lecointre said lack of equipment was a "major problem" and urged the Malian government to make it a priority.

"Mali is poor but the Malian army is even poorer," he said.

France launched its military intervention in Mali on January 11 as armed Islamists who had seized the north in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup advanced into government territory.

Paris has announced plans to begin bringing its 4,000 troops home next month, handing over to the Malian army and some 6,000 troops sent by other African countries.

alc/jhb/mfp