In a west African country where militant and terrorist attacks are “entirely unpredictable”, Irish soldiers are helping to train the Malian army to enforce the rule of law.
The security threat facing the 18-strong deployment, part of a UN-authorised EU military training mission, EUTM Mali, has worsened after a terror attack last Sunday on a hotel in which five people were killed, including a Portuguese solider attached to the EU mission.
Two Irish soldiers were in the Le Campement Hotel at the time, but were unharmed, in an attack that the government of Mali has reportedly blamed on jihadist terrorists.
Lt Col Bernard Markey, who returned from a six-month tour of Mali last March, said the security situation in the country is difficult. He told the Irish Examiner:
“The problem in Mali is that it is entirely unpredictable where or when an attack will happen and who is behind it — a militant group, an ideological group or a purely criminal group.”
Lt Col Markey is an experienced hand at overseas missions, with 16 tours to date, including four in Africa: Rwanda in 1994, just after the genocide; Darfur, Sudan in 2004-2005 (two tours) and Mali: “I’m not new to Africa, which can be a little intimidating if you are not familiar with the environment.”
The average temperature in Mali is 51C.
“I would call it a robust mission. The facilities are basic, it’s extremely hot, the conditions are rural, very isolated, and basic military food. It’s a tough six-month slog.”
On top of that is the general hostile security situation: “Where we go, we go in armoured convoys with maximum security protocols. No soldier moves unescorted from camp. There is no question of people going into an unknown or unsecured area.”
EUTM Mali was established in 2013 on the request of the Malian government to train the Malian Armed Forces, build their capacity and help secure the country’s territorial integrity.
“We have come in to try and assist in training their army and improve the government’s capability to resist the growing number of vicious militias around the country. We also train them in humanitarian law and to have a responsible approach to unarmed civilians and minors,” said Lt Col Markey.
Of the 18 personnel from the Defence Forces, 11 are trainers in the sprawling Koulikoro Training Centre north of the capital Bamako, where the remaining seven serve in the mission headquarters.
“The military trainers teach them infantry skills, such as tactics, being a platoon commander, how to handle weapons and how to co-ordinate with other units,” said Lt Col Markey.
However, he emphasised: “We are not training people to act in an uninhibited manner. We teach them the concepts of proportionality and restraint.”
He said Africa is “full of stories of atrocities by military and militia” and that he saw this first hand in Darfur, which he said was the “most difficult” of tours he served.
EUTM Mali has trained an estimated 10,000 soldiers so far and Lieut Col Markey said the mission is a credit to the EU. He said the mission takes the safety of its members very seriously.
“We are fully geared up and constantly exercising security drills and taking preventative measures. We have very strict medical protocols and have the ‘golden hour rule’ — that you have to be off ground and in the field hospital within one hour.”
He said Mali is huge. The southern part is the size of Spain and the northern part is the size of France: “The country is enormous, the communication structure is negligible, there are few roads and no railways into the north and minimal electronic communication.”
Lt Col Markey said the main threat to the country is in the north, where Malian forces are fighting a Tuareg liberation army as well as Islamist factions: “You have unrest in the north and considerable drift across Mali by armed elements.
“It’s very difficult with many of the incidents to determine who is behind it, what the motivation is and what their capacity is.”
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