Diplomatic flurry as crunch time on Western military role in Mali nears

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Western foreign ministers will hold crunch talks on their countries’ future presence fighting militants in Mali on Monday, four European sources said, with three saying regional and international leaders will also meet on Wednesday.

The diplomatic flurry precedes an EU-Africa summit on February 17-18 and three weeks of consultations amid a deterioration in relations between Mali and France, the main foreign military power in Mali.

“Decisions should be made next week, but it’s not clear where troops would be deployed and what appetite there will be from European countries to stay in the region,” said one European source.

The source added that France wanted to assess what support could be given to countries in the Gulf of Guinea, notably Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and Ghana, where there are concerns militancy is spreading through porous borders.

France is considering withdrawing its troops from Mali, but adapting its strategy to prevent militancy spreading south may prove complex and contribute to uncertainty in the region.

A French drawdown would mean the European special forces Takuba task force would also leave with diplomats saying that the political, operational and legal conditions to remain becoming increasingly difficult.

Ties have worsened since the military junta went back on an agreement to organise elections in February and proposed holding power until 2025. It has also deployed Russian private military contractors, which some European countries have said is incompatible with their mission.

Defence ministers from European nations involved in Takubaas well as Britain, Canada, the United States and countries involved in UN peacekeeping and European training missions in Mali held a call on Friday.

Their foreign ministers will press ahead on Monday to fine-tune plans as well as discuss the impact of a potential withdrawal on UN forces and EU missions in Mali.

Three European diplomatic sources said the French presidency had called for a summit on February 16 of regional and international partners engaged in the Sahel to discuss the crisis.