Mali receives help from EU

2013-02-18 22:01

Brussels - Less than a year after it triggered international condemnation by seizing power in a coup, the Malian military will start receiving advice from European experts on how to maintain control of its vast territory.

On Monday, the EU officially launched a training mission with the goal of making the disparaged Malian army good enough to patrol the whole country, including the vast northern region where French and African troops are fighting to unseat Islamist rebels who used the coup's chaos to grab control.

Critics have accused the new Malian military government of being undemocratic and abusive.

The bloc feels it has no choice but to offer support and oversight because of fears that that if left alone northern Mali could turn into a new Afghanistan, with Islamist groups given free rein to hatch deadly plots to be carried out around the world.

The bloc was so eager to help that it sent the first 70 advisers to Mali 10 days ago so they could hit the ground running when the decision came down.

More EU military experts will begin arriving in Bamako, Mali's capital, next month and training will begin in April.

The decision by the foreign ministers of the 27 EU countries meeting in Brussels authorises the deployment of about 500 people to Mali for 15 months at an estimated cost of $16.4m.

About 20 EU countries will participate in the mission, which officials say will not be involved in any combat.

After the decision, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton said the mission would "support stability in Mali and the Sahel, both now and in the future.

Respect for human rights and the protection of civilians will be an important part of the training programme."

The Sahel is the semiarid area of north Africa below the Sahara desert shared by several countries, often poorly policed and home to organizations that claim affiliation with the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Some of those groups imposed a harsh version of Islamic law, executing violators and performing punitive amputations on thieves.

Greatly concerned, international officials, including those in the EU, turned to the enemy of the terrorists - the former pariah, the military government in Bamako.

PM detained

That military's record over the past year has drawn little praise. It ostensibly handed power back to civilians, but then in December it arrested the prime minister, who announced his resignation on state television at 04:00, hours after soldiers had stormed his house.

Human Rights Watch's senior researcher for West Africa, Corinne Dufka, said at the time that the events fit with the pattern of abuse by soldiers since the coup the previous March.

"They've arrested, beaten and intimidated journalists; tortured and disappeared military rivals; and now, apparently, arbitrarily detained the prime minister. None of these incidents have been investigated and those responsible appear to have been emboldened by the shameful lack of accountability," Dufka said.

As the rebels drew nearer to Bamako, the government there grew increasingly desperate, and the international community increasingly concerned.

In January, France, Mali's former colonial master, intervened at Mali's request and began to drive the rebels back.

Forces form other African countries joined the fight.

And the EU, too, was eager to help - but, as a condition, it successfully pressed the government to draw up a plan for holding elections this year and to ensure that a civilian government has control over the military.

In the wake of the coup, the EU, the World Bank and the African Development Bank all suspended aid.

That aid has begun to flow again.

Monday's statement by the EU foreign ministers welcomed the resumption of development funds.

Creating an army

The goal now, EU officials say, is create an army not only capable of holding the retaken territory but willing to respect international law and civilian control.

The aim, said General Patrick de Rousiers, chairperson of the EU Military Committee, on Monday is to train four battalions.

"It's building a new army," Rousiers said on Monday - one with respect for civilian authority and humanitarian law.

The trainers will teach not only command and control, but human rights.

The deployment carries risks, Rousiers acknowledged, particularly of terrorist attacks.

The foreign ministers, while supporting the mission without dissent, appeared to include in their statement recognition of just whom they were helping.

"The EU is alarmed at the allegations of breaches of international humanitarian and human-rights law and reminds the Malian authorities that they have an overriding responsibility for the protection of civilian populations," the statement said.

While the initial deployment is for 15 months, the job might - or might not - be done by then, Rousiers said.

"We will wait to learn what the future holds," he said.