KOULIKORO, Mali (AFP) – At the foot of a hill by the banks of the Niger River a ragtag company of Malian soldiers crouch on the baked earth, Kalashnikov assault rifles poised.
This is not real warfare but the beginnings of a near equally daunting exercise, the transformation of a poorly-organised, badly-equipped army into a modern fighting force, capable of taking on the Islamist insurgency raging in Mali’s vast desert.
The European Union training mission began last week to give hundreds of Malian soldiers the expertise they will need to combat the militias who occupied its northern cities before being ousted by a French-led military intervention.
With France already beginning to withdraw three-quarters of the 4,000 troops deployed in January to block a feared advance on the Malian capital Bamako by Al Qaeda-linked fighters, it is a race against time.
In a military base in Koulikoro, 60 kilometres (37 miles) downstream from Bamako, soldiers practise handling their Kalashnikovs, first in their laps and then lying on the ground.
They insert magazines and pull back charging handles under the watchful eye of instructors from the seven members of the EUTM — France, Britain, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Ireland.
“We are very motivated, as this training was necessary for us. Afterwards, we will fight the terrorists in the north,” says Sergeant Moussa Maiga.
The French intervention in Mali drove the Islamist insurgents from most of their northern strongholds, although significant pockets of resistance remain in Gao, as well as in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
France has already withdrawn 100 soldiers and intends to have pulled out all but a 1,000-strong “support force” by the end of year, handing over to a UN-mandated African force of 6,300.
The withdrawal places the spotlight back on the Malian military, which fell apart last year in the face of an uprising by ethnic Tuareg rebels who seized the vast arid north in the chaos following a coup, before losing control to well-armed Islamists.
“The first objective is to ensure the coordination of the group,” said French soldier Lieutenant-Colonel Gerard Veillefosse, among the first of 200 EU trainers who will seek to bring the troops up to scratch.
Noting disapprovingly that they seemed to have been trained in an array of different countries, he added: “This cannot work because they are not accustomed to working together.”
Since the beginning of training a week ago, the Koulikoro military training camp has been teeming with soldiers, vendors selling meat and chips, cleaners and masons completing the construction of sheds to be used as classrooms.
In the centre of the six-hectare (15-acre) camp, a helicopter has landed by some tents being used as a field hospital.
“This is an exercise in transferring the war wounded. You have to really put yourself into a war situation. I don’t like the word ‘simulation’. We act as if we were on a field of conflict,” says Boubacar Tine, a Malian officer.
The first batch of trainees come from across Mali. Among them are Arabs and Tuaregs, two minority communities often equated with Islamists by the country’s black majority.
“It is you who sees me as a Tuareg. I am a Malian soldier first and foremost. We want to be trained to defend our country. We are proud to be Malians,” says Cherif, a Tuareg sergeant.
While the lower-ranked soldiers learn weapons handling and group discipline the officers are taught a more subtle art — commanding the troops.
Sitting in a room on the first floor of a building in the training centre, they listen carefully to a French counterpart who tells them: “When you give instructions to a subordinate, you do so in a loud voice so that he understands that these are orders.”
With the Malian army regularly accused of abuses, particularly against Arabs and Tuaregs, the European trainers want to establish an army capable not just of standing on its own two feet but also of respecting human rights.
In total, four battalions of about 700 Malian soldiers each will be trained.
“Each course will last ten weeks and will be in two phases — general military training and, very quickly, a specialisation,” EUTM spokesman Lt Col Philip de Cussac said.
The specialisation will be “very sophisticated”, he added, to establish special forces and train snipers and experts in telecommunications, engineering and artillery.
The first Malian soldiers trained by the EU will be operational by July and will be deployed straight to the front in northern Mali.