The head of the EU military committee said on Saturday he was “confident” in the ability of the first Mali battalion being trained by Europe to battle the Islamist insurgency raging in the north.
General Patrick de Rousiers told reporters in the capital Bamako he had encountered “professional and extremely competent personnel” after visiting the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) in Mali.
“I’m enthusiastic because [the trainers] are satisfied with the Malian troops,” said de Rousiers, adding that he was “confident” because “the battalion was at an extremely high professional level”.
The EU began a top-to-toe overhaul of Mali’s weak, ragtag army in April to help the west African nation take over from foreign troops defending it against Islamist extremists.
Around 700 Malian troops have gathered in Koulikoro, 60 kilometers from Bamako, to train under European instructors as part of a wider effort to bring the army up to scratch as quickly as possible.
France, which sent 4,500 troops to its former colony in January to block an advance on the capital from the north by al-Qaeda-linked fighters, is the lead country in the mission.
Paris is preparing to hand over to a U.N.-mandated African force in the coming weeks, placing a spotlight on Mali’s poorly-paid, ill-equipped and badly-organized armed forces.
The Malian military fell apart last year when well-armed Islamist extremists seized the country’s vast northern desert, terrorizing locals with amputations and executions performed under a brutal interpretation of sharia Islamic law.
The French-led intervention quickly drove out the insurgents but significant pockets of resistance remain in the northern desert.
Around 2,500 of an estimated 5,000 Malian troops will train over the next 15 months with the EUTM, which will run on a budget of 12.3 million euros ($15.8 million).
The United States had initially begun an ambitious program to train a new generation of Malian officers as part of a counter-terrorism program in North and West Africa but the effort ended in embarrassment for Washington.
One of the officers who attended several courses with the U.S. military, Captain Amadou Sanago, led a coup against the Malian government last March, prompting Washington to suspend its security assistance.
And when militants pushed out of the north last year, some of the Malian army units ended up defecting, with weapons and hardware falling into the hands of Islamist militants.
French General Francois Lecointre, who heads the EUTM, said past failures had been taken into account to help the mission establish its training methodology.
EU military chief ‘confident’ about Mali troop training