Sporadic gunfire heard in Gao after fierce fighting



- VAR of the court house, a day after the battle, near the Place de la republique Square (Sharia square)

- Roof of the courthouse with members of the Malian army

- VAR of the combatants and alleys near the market occupied by the Malian army




As French troop drawdown looms, Malian army still in crisis

by Joshua Howat Berger

BAMAKO, Feb 22, 2013 (AFP) - As France pushes ahead with plans to start withdrawing its troops from Mali next month despite continuing Islamist attacks, military leaders from both countries admit the Malian army is in crisis and not ready to take over.

Mali's military has been at the centre of the nation's unravelling, which began with a northern separatist rebellion launched in January 2012 and shows little sign of easing after Al Qaeda-linked extremists on Thursday carried out a guerrilla assault on the largest city in the north and a car bombing near a base housing French troops.

Malian army chief General Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said the military was in "crisis" and admitted that preparing it to face the country's internal threats was a "medium-term" objective.

It is not enough to "chase out the terrorists and their accomplices without training the Malian army, without restoring its operational capacity, without giving it back the means to guarantee the country's territorial integrity and safeguard the nation's sovereignty," Dembele said.

But it is unclear just how the army will reclaim control and regain credibility.

Mali's melt-down, which started with a string of humiliating defeats for the army in the north, accelerated on March 22, 2012, when mid-level officers frustrated at the military's decay overthrew the president of what had until then been praised abroad as one of Africa's most solid democracies.

Instead of catalysing a crackdown on the rebels, the coup opened a power vacuum that enabled Islamist extremists to hijack what had begun as a secular independence rebellion among the north African Tuareg people and seize a territory larger than Texas, imposing a brutal vision of Islamic law.

The Malian army meanwhile descended into chaos as elite "Red Beret" troops loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure staged a failed counter-coup that left 20 people dead.

The infighting continued as recently as February 8, when tensions between Red Berets protesting an order disbanding them and rival troops stationed outside their camp in the capital erupted into gunfire that killed two young civilians.

With France eager to start bringing home the 4,000 troops it has deployed in its former colony, the European Union this week launched a training mission aimed at getting the Malian army ready to secure its own territory.

The head of the mission, which will hold two-month training sessions for some 2,600 troops, gave a blunt assessment of the army's current capabilities Wednesday at a press conference with army chief Dembele.

"We know all too clearly today that the Malian army needs a major overhaul," said French General Francois Lecointre.

"The Malian state almost disappeared" because of the army's inadequacy, he said.

Lecointre said that besides combat skills the training would focus on restoring morale, discipline and respect for human rights -- a sensitive topic amid accusations by rights groups that Malian soldiers have tortured accused rebel supporters and killed others in cold blood.

The general called on the international community to give money to the under-equipped army, which donors have been reluctant to fund directly since the coup.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, French and EU officers told AFP they have been shocked by the Malian army's lack of resources.

"They have one gun for every two or three soldiers," said a French officer.

"The Red Berets are properly trained, but the others are not," said a European officer.

An EU trainer meanwhile acknowledged the limits of a two-month training.

"We can't make a good soldier in two months, but we can teach them to put their uniform on properly and use a weapon, and also give them discipline," he said.

France's exit strategy includes lobbying the United Nations to create a peacekeeping force incorporating some 8,000 troops being sent by other African countries to help.

But the spokesman for the regional force, known as AFISMA, acknowledged its troops -- some 5,400 have so far been deployed -- are not yet ready to take over.

"I believe we'll be able to secure the country soon," Ivorian Colonel Adjoumani Yao told AFP Thursday.

"I know the time will arrive. I'm sure. But I don't know the date."