EU begins mission to train Mali military as French troops prepare to leave

A Puma helicopter lands near the French army's 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment in the Ifoghas mountains on March 17, 2013.</p>

A Puma helicopter lands near the French army's 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment in the Ifoghas mountains on March 17, 2013.

The European Union officially began the difficult task of rebuilding Mali's military on Tuesday.

As part of the EU training mission the first of four Malian battalions will train under European instructors at Koulikoro base outside the capital city of Bamako, according to Agence France-Presse

The mission is meant to help the West African country defend against Islamist insurgents who after a coup in March 2012 seized major cities in the north, including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

A French-led invasion that began less than three months ago regained the territory, but fighting continues in the north, and France is preparing to withdraw its 4,000 troops.

French General Francois Lecointre, head of the EU training mission, said rebuilding Mali's military would not be easy.

"Objectively, it must be entirely rebuilt," he said.

"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.

Here's the stated purpose of the mission - in which 23 nations are now taking part:

"The EU training mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) is intended to help improve the military capacity of the Malian Armed Forces in order to allow, under civilian authority, the restoration of the country's territorial integrity. It represents an integral part of the EU's comprehensive approach to the situation in Mali and the Sahel."  

French President Francois Hollande has said he will cut French service members in Mali to 1,000 by year's end, and will start withdrawing troops at the end of April.  

Last week a report to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said about 11,200 peacekeepers and a second "parallel" force to conduct major counter-terrorism operations would be required to protect against insurgent militants.  

Mali has about 4,800 soldiers, and the several assisting African nations have a combined 6,300 troops