Europe backs French Mali mission with strong words, modest means

European backing of France appears to be holding steady after hostages were reportedly killed at a gas field in the region. But the support is a far cry from the coalition that toppled Qaddafi.

Joe Penney/Reuters
Villagers wave to the French military as they pass the town of Konobougou, Mali, on Thursday. European Union states will send some 450 military personnel to train Mali government forces in the fight against Islamist rebels.

As France continued its military intervention in Mali in the wake of a reportedly deadly Algerian army attempt to rescue hostages at a natural gas field deep in the Sahara Desert on Thursday, its European partners offered plenty of rhetorical solidarity but little concrete support for the operation.

With Paris expected to increase the number of troops in Mali from 1,400 to around 2,500 in order to take on Islamist extremists, there were few signs that the rest of Europe was prepared to build the kind of coalition that successfully ousted Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011.

While the French called for military backup in Mali, leaders in other European capitals appeared reluctant to commit to another war in a Muslim country, in the wake of the expenditure of blood and treasure in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

"You say, 'We'll give you nurses and you go get yourselves killed,'" said Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French deputy in the European Parliament, as he tried to encourage other European countries to commit troops and military hardware to the intervention in Mali. "We [Europe] will only be credible if French soldiers are not the only ones getting killed."

The European commitment to the French effort in its former colony has so far been modest.

Britain, Belgium, and Denmark have provided C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft to ferry supplies to Mali, while a European observation satellite is furnishing intelligence for French forces on the ground.

Italy has also pledged limited support, including the use of Boeing 767 tankers for the in-flight refueling of French military aircraft and the dispatching of up to 24 military personnel to help train the Malian army.

Like other European countries, Italy has offered plenty of moral support to the French intervention, but has made it clear that it will not be putting boots on the ground.

“It is important to find a rapid solution to this crisis and to avoid terrorist forces becoming firmly established in this part of the world,” Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola told the Senate on Wednesday.

There was a danger of Mali turning into an “Alqaedistan” of Islamist extremism virtually on southern Europe’s doorstep, said an Italian foreign affairs official.

Staffan De Mistura, an undersecretary who has long experience of conflicts in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, told Corriere della Sera newspaper: “This is the first time that a territory the size of France has fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda."

“Even if one risks a new Afghanistan, or even an ‘Alqaedistan,’ we cannot have a country like Mali being taken over by a fundamentalist dictatorship that threatens the world.”

But the Italian government said that while it was important to show solidarity with the French, Italian troops would not be joining the fight to liberate northern Mali from the hold of extremists.

The Italian left seemed even less enthusiastic about the French campaign in Mali, in the heart of one of the traditional spheres of Gallic influence.

“Once an empire, always an empire,” said the left-leaning national newspaper La Repubblica in a front page editorial.

It noted that the French empire was once 25 times the size of France itself and that Paris retains important strategic and economic interests in Africa, particularly in the west. “France is intervening in Mali not just to confront Al Qaeda fundamentalists but also to reaffirm its influence in its former colonies,” the newspaper commented.

The European Union on Thursday gave approval to sending a 450-strong training mission to Mali to train its army.

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

But the firm rhetoric of officials in Brussels was hardly matched by the nature of the EU mission – its soldiers will not be engaging in any combat.

There were some positive signs for the French campaign, however.

None of its European partners seemed inclined to cancel or scale back their support, however modest, in the light of events in Algeria, where Algerian military helicopter gunships reportedly killed up to 35 oil workers and 15 of their captors amid efforts to end to a two-day hostage crisis at a remote natural gas field in the country’s east.

And there were hints that over the coming weeks Europe might be persuaded to send a few combat troops to back up the French in Mali.

Some EU members were considering "an offer of troops," although "we won't force anyone," said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius after emergency talks in Brussels.

Reflecting the reluctance of European capitals to commit to another war in an Islamic country that could drag on for years, he conceded that “there are limits to security and defense policy, even if that is to be regretted.”

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