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Paris (AFP) Feb 19, 2013
Mali said Tuesday that major military operations against Islamist rebels were winding down, despite the killing of a French Legionnaire in the country's mountainous north.
"The situation is much better than a few weeks ago. Large-scale military operations are coming to an end. What remains is to secure the liberated areas," Mali's Prime Minister Diango Cissoko said after meeting in Paris with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Fabius said "difficult operations" remained in the country, where the French military launched an intervention last month that ousted the rebels from cities they had seized last year in Mali's vast desert north.
"We must ensure the integrity of the reconquest of Mali. As cities are reclaimed, Malian and African troops must ensure they are secured," Fabius said.
Underscoring the dangers, France announced only its second military death since the start of the operation on January 11 -- the killing of Staff Sergeant Harold Vormezeele, an NCO and commando with the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment, an elite unit of the French Foreign Legion.
The defence ministry said he was killed during an operation launched on Monday that had seen more than 20 rebels killed during clashes in the mountainous Ifoghas region.
It said 150 French and Malian soldiers were taking part in the operation, aimed at rooting rebels out of their sanctuaries.
Vormezeele was killed around 11:00 am (1000 GMT) on Tuesday.
"French forces consisting of a unit of paratroopers, backed by forward air control and an armoured patrol, were attacked by a group of terrorists while on a reconnaissance mission in the Adrar massif about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Tessalit," the ministry said.
It said two Mirage fighter jets were called in and destroyed two heavy machinegun nests from where the attacks were carried out.
President Francois Hollande offered condolences to the soldier's family, saying in a statement that he "salutes the courage and sacrifice of our soldiers involved in the fight against terrorist movements alongside Mali's armed forces and African troops."
Cissoko meanwhile addressed concerns over allegations of widespread rights abuses by Malian government forces during operations in the north, vowing that those responsible would be held to account.
"Regarding the abuses that would have been carried out by certain elements of the Malian army, these abuses, once they are proven, must be punished. Soldiers should behave in an exemplary manner," he said.
Fabius also said the abuses were "unacceptable".
"If they have taken place they must be punished," he said.
Cissoko reiterated that elections will take place by July 31 and promised political talks that would include all the country's diverse groups.
"We have the will, the determination" to push ahead with political reforms, he said.
"In the meantime, productive talks will take place between all of Mali's communities. The communities of the north as well as of the south. No community will be excluded," he said.
Ethnic Tuaregs in northern Mali, who have long sought greater autonomy, initially backed the rebellion but later fell out with the Islamists.
Cissoko said a dialogue and reconciliation commission would be put in place before the end of February.
EU to train over 2,500 Malian soldiers from April: general
The European Union Training Mission (EUTM) for Mali is tasked with helping an army in need of a "major overhaul", said General Francois Lecointre, as French-led forces continued working to secure the north of the country from Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.
The EUTM will run two-month trainings for four battalions of 650 to 700 troops each, Lecointre told journalists in the Malian capital Bamako after signing a series of agreements with Mali's army chief of staff paving the way for the mission.
Lecointre said Malian commanders were "fully aware of the dilapidated state of the army", and praised their "transparency" in acknowledging the problems facing the under-funded and deeply divided military.
"The objective is to allow the Malian army to acquire the combat capacity needed to face the internal threat while contributing to the stability of the entire region," said the Malian chief of staff, General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele.
"It's a complicated objective," he added. "But chasing the terrorists from Malian territory without training the army to restore its operational capacity would be like treating the symptom without knowing the cause of the disease."
A total of 200 instructors backed up by some 300 protection and support troops will be on the ground by mid-March and then launch training courses at a military academy in the town of Koulikoro, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of Bamako, Lecointre said.
The training will also include a component on human rights, he added. Rights groups have accused Mali's army of abuses including summary executions of Arabs and Tuaregs seen as supporting the rebels.
At least 16 of the EU's 27 members will take part, each funding its own contingent, Lecointre said.
The EU is providing a 12.3-million-euro ($16.4-million) budget to cover general operating costs and the expansion of infrastructure at the Koulikoro military academy, but the overall cost of the mission will be "much greater", he added.
The EU will not provide any equipment.
Lecointre said lack of equipment was a "major problem" and urged the Malian government to make it a priority.
"Mali is poor but the Malian army is even poorer," he said.
France launched its military intervention in Mali on January 11 as armed Islamists who had seized the north in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup advanced into government territory.
Paris has announced plans to begin bringing its 4,000 troops home next month, handing over to the Malian army and some 6,000 troops sent by other African countries.
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