EU group endorses training mission for Mali

Islamist fighters in Gao, Mali, 16 July
Image caption Islamists in northern Mali have imposed a strict version of Sharia

Foreign and defence ministers from five EU states have backed a proposed European mission to train Malian forces struggling against Islamist fighters.

Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and France issued a statement in Paris endorsing the plan for Mali.

West African states intend to send a force to recapture northern Mali from al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups.

Troops would be in Mali within weeks of UN approval, Nigeria's army chief has told the BBC.

The proposal for the intervention is due to go before the UN Security Council for approval before the end of the year.

The African Union has already backed the plan to send 3,300 troops under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

'Political solution unlikely'

Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels took control of the north after Mali's president was overthrown in March.

The Islamists subsequently fell out with the Tuareg groups and consolidated their power in all the major northern towns, introducing strict Islamic law.

The UN has warned that the Islamist militias are imposing a harsh version of Islamic law on the areas they control and that forced marriage, forced prostitution and rape are becoming widespread.

Three of the states meeting in Paris - Germany, France and Poland - formed a loose grouping called the Weimar Triangle in 1991 to foster relations.

At their talks on Thursday, they endorsed a decision of the EU's Foreign Affairs Council on 15 October which says the EU is "determined to support Mali in restoring the rule of law and re-establishing a fully sovereign democratic government".

Image caption Germany's defence minister (2nd L) foreign minister (C) attended the talks

On that occasion, the council asked for work to begin on planning a possible EU military operation that would focus on reorganising and training the Malian defence forces.

The operation should take "account of the conditions necessary for the success of any such mission, which include the full support of the Malian authorities and the definition of an exit strategy", the council said.

"The Europeans can help but this is going to take time and means," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters on Thursday.

Nigeria's military chief Admiral Ola Ibrahim told the BBC that once the UN Security Council gives the green light for military intervention, Nigerian troops would be on the ground within one or two weeks.

There would be less than 1,000 Nigerian soldiers in the Ecowas force, he said.

"What we agreed to is a situation where Malian forces will do most of the job securing their country," he said.

Adm Ibrahim acknowledged it was possible that military intervention could see the Islamists spread across borders, but he added it was worth the risk as the militants posed a threat to regional peace and security.

BBC Nigeria correspondent Will Ross says that West African leaders are still hoping peace talks can be held with the Islamist militants who control northern Mali.

However, dialogue seems unlikely to succeed, he says.

On Thursday, the Weimar group also called for continuing efforts "for a political solution to the Malian crisis".

Ahead of Thursday's talks, there was speculation that the Weimar group would also discuss the conflict in Syria. However, there was no mention of the crisis in the joint statement.

The five countries called for the EU to further pool its defence resources.

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