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EU approves military training mission to Mali; no combat role envisioned for troops


German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, left, speaks with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius during an emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. A former French colony, Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with the majority of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup, and began enforcing their version of strict Shariah law. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS - European officials had a message Thursday for French forces fighting on the front lines of the battle against Islamist extremists in the troubled African country of Mali: We're behind you all the way and right behind you is exactly where we plan to stay.

European leaders agree that the Islamist radicals controlling a vast swath of northern Mali pose a global threat, saying they are capable of developing terrorist plots that could strike any country in the world. The U.S. government shares that view.

But after a decade bogged down in Afghanistan, also in a war against jihadists, there is scant appetite either in Europe or the U.S. to put boots on the ground in Mali however much national leaders say that something needs to be done.

At an emergency meeting in Brussels on Thursday, EU foreign ministers approved sending a military training mission to Mali to shore up the army and so, it is hoped, enable the country's government to regain control of all its territory, perhaps with help from neighbouring African countries. Even that is nothing new; the EU has long planned to send trainers, but the timetable is being expedited.

No European leader downplays the danger posed by northern Mali.

"The threat of jihadi terrorists is something that should be a matter of great concern to all of us," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said on his way into the meeting. "And there is not one European country that can hide if this threat would present itself to the European continent."

Yet no combat role is envisioned for the EU troops. Instead, France is out alone on the front lines, at least so far.

"It is completely possible - but this is up to them - that others or the same European countries decide to offer not just logistical support, but also to make soldiers available," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "But we're not going to force them to, obviously."

French officials say the opposition they've encountered has been fiercer and more heavily armed than they had expected, hardly words to encourage queasy national leaders to participate.

A French helicopter pilot has died in the effort.

Of course, there can be other reasons for reluctance. European adventurism in Africa has a sorry history. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said this week that Mali is clearly a case where Europe should help, but one where it should also make sure that Africans are in charge as much as possible.

Heather Conley, Europe program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that such forays often have unintended consequences. In fact, Mali's current problems can be partially traced to the international intervention in Libya, where the fall of leader Moammar Gadhafi led weapons and fighters to spill across porous borders and spread throughout the lawless desert.

Another reason for the rest of Europe's reluctance to follow France's lead may be simple battle fatigue. Many European countries have been fighting militants in Afghanistan for more than a decade. Countries as varied as Bulgaria, Belgium, Slovakia, Lithuania and Poland still have troops deployed there. Larger countries, such as the U.K., Germany, Italy and France still have thousands of troops committed.

The Islamist radicals in northern Mali are said to have ties to al-Qaida, the terrorist group that made its home in Afghanistan. And history's verdict on whether, after so many years, the international operation in Afghanistan will in the end be called a success has yet to be delivered.

Similarly, French officials have given different goals at different times since the operation in Mali began last week. E.J. Hogendoorn, deputy director for the International Crisis Group's Africa program, said the French military could certainly take the cities of northern Mali if it puts all its might behind such a mission but finding a durable, peaceful solution for an area the size of Texas would be another matter.

"Once this mission is stepped up, they'll be able to hold the major cities, but then the question comes up: who fills the vacuum?" he asked.

____

Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.


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