When French troops to leave Mali in doubt

March 18, 2013 at 3:36 PM

BAMAKO, Mali, March 18 (UPI) -- As French troops prepare to leave Mali, Western and African officials say soldiers who will continue the fight against al-Qaida militants may be ill-equipped.

The heaviest fighting in northeastern Mali against rebels aligned with al-Qaida has been largely borne by troops from France and Chad, The New York Times reported Monday, noting Mali's allies in the region, Nigeria and Senegal, have been slow to send troops and have focused on peacekeeping rather than combat.

Turing Mali's fractured army into a cohesive fighting force entails "a huge amount of work," said French Brig. Gen. Francois Lecointre, who is leading the effort to retrain the Malian forces.

The French-led operation in Mali has killed scores of militants and destroyed vast caches of weapons, the newspaper noted, adding the French withdrawal will put African troops against guerrilla fighters with vastly more experience.

"No amount of exercise or training in the next couple of weeks or months can, in itself, prepare African forces for their new role in Mali," said Benjamin F. Nichols, a counter-terrorism specialist at the National Defense University's Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.

The French are likely to retain a presence in Mali after withdrawing most of their 4,000 troops from Mali, diplomats say, but in a sign that Western officials are worried about whether African soldiers will be up to the task, some diplomats are suggesting the United Nations approve a 10,000-troop rapid-response force, the newspaper said.

A vote in the U.N. Security Council on the suggestion is anticipated for early April.

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