BAMAKO, Mali: In preparation for a drawdown of French troops from Mali, a European Union team started training Malian soldiers for battle against jihadists who overran much of this West African country before they were pushed back by a French military intervention.
On a recent day, small groups of Malians stood in the burning heat and orange sands in the town of Koulikoro, 60 kilometers (37 miles) west of the capital Bamako, learning to hold weapons. They began the training last week, and this week they learned how to shoot from standing, sitting and prone positions.
About 550 people form the team meant to ready Mali's army for combat. But there is worry that the project to train thousands of soldiers may not be sufficient to keep the armed Islamic militants at bay.
French forces entered Mali swiftly and strongly in January after Islamic militants began a formidable push south toward the country's capital. The militants, who are inspired by a radical interpretation of Islam, ruled the northern half of Mali for nearly 10 months before the French-led military operation forced them into the desert surrounding the main cities. The extremists have responded with a series of attacks, including suicide bombings.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said this week that about 100 French troops have been pulled out of Mali and were as of this week in Cyprus on their way back to France. Last month, French President Francois Hollande said that by July, about 2,000 French soldiers will still be in the former French colony, down from 4,000 at the peak deployment, and at the end of the year "1,000 French soldiers will remain." He said the French troops would likely be part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation that France is pushing for.
The French-led operation with backing from regional bloc ECOWAS and under authorization of the U.N. Security Council has largely been hailed a success so far, though there are some concerns the militants will simply regroup once the French start drawing down.
Mali's military chain of command was broken after a coup last year. Soldiers lack respect for their commanders and superiors. There are reports that soldiers, humiliated by their defeat last year at the hands of the Islamic extremists, have carried out reprisals against the Arab and Tuareg civilians left behind.
Human Rights Watch released a report Thursday that said two Tuareg men who had been arrested in February and tortured by Malian soldiers in the Timbuktu region have died in detention in Bamako.
The army had detained seven Tuareg men between the ages of 21 and 66 in February on suspicion they supported Islamic militant groups, the rights group said. The seven told a researcher they had been "severely beaten and kicked, burned, injected with a caustic substance, and threatened with death while in custody," the report said.
Col. Christophe Paczka, a French commander of the training center in Koulikoro, said weapons and equipment were brought and assembled for the training of the Malian troops.
"This army is getting back on its feet and needs weapons," Paczka said.
This week, the Malian trainees gathered in fatigues in front of chalkboards where European instructors showed them the basics of their weapons. The soldiers also laid on their bellies side by side, learning to aim from the ground.
Eventually 2,800 soldiers will be trained, said Col. Laurent Viellefosse, a trainer for the program.
The Malian soldiers seem motivated about the training as they split into smaller groups with instructors from England, Finland, Sweden and France.
"We have had easy exercises, some others more difficult, but nothing that's insurmountable," said Malian soldier Soumaila Fomba. "I'm most interested in leadership and commanding on the field, and shooting."
The EU has given 12.3 million euros for the training center, hospital and operating costs, said Col. Phillipe de Cussac.
However, even with the training, a U.S. official warned stronger forces are needed.
"In Mali right now, the French have pushed the AQIM out of the major cities in North Mali, and we're working to create a U.N. operation to follow that so the French can focus on the high-value targets and eventually turn over that security to the host country," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations, Michael Sheehan, said Tuesday at a hearing, according to a transcript of the hearing.
He said the West African or ECOWAS force that is in Mali right now "is not capable at all."
French troops are currently backed by soldiers from other West African countries including Chad. Sheehan suggested a U.N. force be supported for the mission, but said eventually a stronger force was needed to chase the al-Qaida-linked militants out of the mountains.
"That is going to be a job for a much more capable force," he said.