Mali crisis: EU troops begin training mission

French troops in northern Mali. March 2013 French fighting forces are preparing to begin withdrawing from Mali

An EU mission to train Malian soldiers is due to begin as part of efforts to help the West African country counter an Islamist insurgency.

The first of four Malian battalions will train under European instructors at the Koulikoro base some 60km (37 miles) from the capital, Bamako.

A French-led intervention that began in January has regained the main cities of northern Mali from Islamist groups.

However, fighting continues in the north.

Of the 550 troops from 22 EU nations sent to Mali, about 150 are trainers with the rest made up of mission support staff and force protection.

France is the biggest contributor to the force with 207 troops, followed by Germany with 71, Spain with 54, Britain 40, the Czech Republic 34, Belgium 25 and Poland 20.

Training takes place under the control of French Brigadier General Francois Lecointre and is expected to continue for about 15 months.

"Objectively, it [the army] must be entirely rebuilt," said Gen Lecointre.

"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."

Islamic law

The first fully trained battalion of Malian troops is expected to be operational in July.

Islamist groups took advantage of a coup in March 2012 to seize the vast north of Mali including major cities including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

They imposed a strict form of Islamic law in the area.

France intervened after saying the al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to march on Bamako.

France is now preparing to withdraw its 4,000 troops fighting in Mali, which will be replaced by forces from several West African countries.

French President Francois Hollande said troop levels would be halved by July and reduced to about 1,000 by the end of the year.

The African force in Mali currently numbers about 6,300 soldiers.

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