Malian army in better shape than 6 months ago

The Malian army is better placed to deal with its security challenges today than at the start of the year but an EU military training mission still needs to be extended, its French commander said Wednesday.

The army's "condition is better than six months ago", when former colonial power France swept to its aid to help drive out Islamist fighters who had occupied the north of the country, General Francois Lecointre said in Brussels.

Lecointre said the Malian military had "regained the pride they had lost" after the poorly trained and ill-equipped troops were routed by ethnic Tuareg and Al Qaeda-linked rebels.

In what was initially solely a Tuareg separatist rebellion, soldiers were violently pushed out of key northern towns, prompting angry troops to overthrow the government in Bamako in March 2012.

In the political chaos that followed, the Tuareg -- who had allied with Islamist fighters -- took firm control of the north. However the Al Qaeda-linked militants later chased them out and ruled under a brutal form of sharia law.

EU states -- who saw the increased power of a network of extremists and drug-traffickers as a threat to its own security -- sent troops to Mali which began training the army in April.

Lecointre said that despite improvements "the crisis in confidence that has undermined the Malian army is not cured."

Lecointre, who leaves his command of some 500 European military trainers and support troops on August 1, said he thought the mission should have its mandate extended by "at least a year" to enable the entire Malian army to benefit from their training.

"These things take time," he said.

Its present mandate runs to March 2014, with the goal of training some 3,000 soldiers, or half of the Malian army.

A first battalion of some 700 troops is in the field, "accompanied" by French soldiers, but Lecointre stressed that the Malian army was hampered by threadbare transport resources and lacked rifles for elite soldiers.

Ahead of Mali's July 28 presidential polls, Lecointre said that the security risks posed by the rebels were now low thanks to the French-led military intervention.