• Coulibaly (c) in Brussels: 'The forces of evil have holed up in our country' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

EU mission, African troops to take over from France in Mali

06.02.13 @ 11:02

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The French assault force is to start pulling out of Mali next month, as EU military advisors and African soldiers move in, with talk of UN peacekeepers down the line.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told the Metro newspaper on Wednesday (6 February) that: "From the beginning of March, if everything goes as planned, the number of French troops will diminish."

He noted that the "first phase" of the campaign, to reconquer north Mali towns from jihadists, is over. But he added that "there is always a risk of individual actions" by rebels and that French troops will "continue to act in the north, wherever we find outbreaks of terrorist activity."

Fabius spoke the same day as member states' military staff in Brussels fleshed out details of an upcoming EU training mission (EUTM).

Sixteen EU countries have so far pledged military and civilian experts, soldiers to protect the EUTM itself and medical personnel.

The UK will send up to 40 men and women. Poland has spoken of 20 and Ireland, six. Canada, Norway and the US, who were present in Tuesday's talks, might also get involved, up to a total figure of 500 or so EUTM and partner countries' personnel.

"Most of the staffing needs have now been fulfilled. We are hopeful that the last posts can be provided with in the next days," EU foreign affairs spokesman Sebastien Brabant told EUobserver.

He noted that 70 EUTM people will fly to Bamako on Friday. Twenty will start work with Malian commanders, while 50 will set up camp for the full deployment in mid-February.

France currently has 4,000 soldiers in Mali.

French generals Didier Castres and Bernard Barrera are also in command of 3,800 troops from Mali neighbour countries. Some 1,800 desert combat specialists from Chad, currently in Kidal in north Mali, form the core of the African force.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton in Brussels also on Tuesday hosted 40 delegates from EU countries, African states and international bodies to talk about Mali's long term future.

Jeffrey Feltman, a UN under-secretary-general, indicated there is interest in sending in UN blue hats, but he said it is too early to speak of details.

"It's a question the UN Security Council will have to consider at the appropriate time," he noted.

"This is not going to be a situation where there will be a peace treaty or a ceasefire agreement between the two sides ... I don't think the forces which have terrorised the people of north Mali are going to sit around a table and sign a apeace treaty which UN forces can implement or monitor," he added.

A joint communique from the EU meeting also warned Mali against revenge attacks on Muslim men and Touareg tribesmen in the north.

It "underlined the importance of the respect for international humanitarian law as well as the protection of civilian populations."

Malian foreign minister Tieman Coulibaly said he is ready to host inspectors from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

He noted that the jihadists are guilty of worse atrocities than his men, however.

He said that in one incident, rebels captured and disarmed 130 Malian soldiers, castrated them, cut their throats and executed them with point blank shots to the head.

When asked by press if he is ready to talk with the "opposition," he answered: "Are you calling the terrorists the opposition? There are no terrorists in inverted commas in Mali. There are terrorist full stop. Narco-traffickers full stop. Criminals full stop. Fanatics full stop ... The forces of evil have holed up in our country."