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By Adrian Croft
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The French commander of a European Union mission to train Mali's army, routed by rebels last year, said on Wednesday he believed the mission should be expanded and go on for at least a year longer than planned.
The EU trainers, dispatched to Mali in the wake of a French-led military intervention in January that drove al Qaeda-allied Islamist insurgents out of the main northern towns, face a big challenge in turning Mali's rag-tag army into a capable force.
Years of corruption and neglect led the army to a string of defeats against the militants last year and then a military coup by disgruntled officers in the capital, Bamako.
The EU mission, given the task of training four battalions each consisting of 700 soldiers, is scheduled to end by March next year.
But Brigadier-General Francois Lecointre, the commander of the EU mission, in Brussels to brief ambassadors and EU officials, said he thought more time would be needed.
"I think that clearly we shouldn't stop at the training of half the Malian army but that we should be able to train the other half - not four battalions which today make up half the Malian army, but more," he told a news conference.
Training four extra battalions would mean the mission would have to be extended by at least a year, he said.
Lecointre, who is due to step down from his post at the start of August, stressed that these were his personal views.
EU planners will carry out a strategic review from September that will look at the future of the mission.
"We can't claim to help a nation to rebuild its army in a lasting way in one year, knowing how long it takes to do that and knowing the trauma that Mali has experienced and the extent of the collapse of its army," Lecointre said.
He said the equipment most urgently needed by the Malian army was trucks.
Twenty-three EU member states are contributing personnel to the mission, which has a total staff of around 550 and a budget of around 12.3 million euros ($16.10 million).
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)