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EU Steps Up Support to Mali Operation

January 17th 2013

French soldiers

As Algeria launched an operation to rescue foreign hostages held by al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants, European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels agreed to offer training and logistical support to fight militants farther south in Mali.  But European Union (EU) states have yet to contribute combat forces to bolster France's military operation there.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said a 500-troop European mission to help train Malian forces would be operational within days, with its French commanding general in Mali as of Sunday. At a news conference in Brussels, Fabius said European Union countries were unanimous in expressing their solidarity with France's nearly week-old military offensive in Mali to help expel Islamist radicals there.

The training mission aims to beef up Mali's military, which has been undermined by the country's political divisions as well as the Islamist insurgency. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said states will also increase humanitarian assistance to Mali and help fund the West African military mission due there shortly. Ashton said the decisions were part of a larger European strategy for the Sahel region of Africa.

"It's about humanitarian support in these times of crisis. It's about ensuring development aid. It's about ensuring the security across the Sahel - and in this context, all the people of Mali. It's about dealing with this challenge from the terrorists. And its about building the economy," she said.

For his part, visiting Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly said his country would finalize in a matter of days a political "road map" the Europeans have demanded. Coulibaly said the road map would include liberating northern Mali from the grip of extremists and preparing for new elections.

But so far, no other EU member has pledged to send combat forces to bolster the French offensive against the Islamists - although Paris argues they pose a threat to Europe, as well as Africa. That is fueling growing criticism in France - including on the part of the country's former foreign minister, Alain Juppe.

Speaking on France 24 TV, Juppe said it was impossible for French troops to cover a vast swathe of northern Mali that is far bigger than France itself. It is time, he said, to ask about Europe's contribution to the combat - and that of other countries. But Ashton denied France was alone in fighting the extremists.

"They have an extraordinarily important contribution to make. We have seen this in the military action that President Hollande has decided was necessary - and it was. And the European Union's role is to come and support France in its military operations," she said. Foreign Minister Fabius said EU members could still offer combat forces - but that France would not force them to do so.

Lisa Bryant writes for VOA, from where this article is adapted.

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