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Brussels - Governments and international organisations meet on Tuesday to find ways to reinforce military gains against Islamist rebels in northern Mali by supporting democracy, economic development and human rights in one of the world's poorest countries.
The rapid progress of French and Malian forces in driving the rebels from Mali's main northern towns has put the diplomatic focus on how to ensure lasting security there and how to tackle poverty and political grievances that contributed to Mali's instability.
“When a state falls apart, it takes a while to put it back together again ... Nevertheless, we need to try,” said a senior European Union official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
France deployed 3 500 ground troops, fighter jets and armoured vehicles in January after the rebels advanced south and the Malian government asked Paris for help.
An international support group for Mali - comprised of the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and West African states - meets in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the funding, equipping and training of an 8 000-strong African force, which is expected to eventually take over from the French.
About 45 delegations are expected at the meeting, including ministers or officials from Mali, Algeria and Libya and international lenders such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank.
The EU thinks it can help quickly by releasing some of the 250 million euros of development aid it froze after a coup in Mali in March last year. It could also help to fund human rights monitors who would gather evidence of rights abuses committed by the rebels and act as a deterrent against any abuses by the re-occupying Malian troops.
Human rights groups say the French-led offensive in Mali has led to ethnic reprisals by Malian troops.
“In the medium term, we need to look at ensuring the north has adequate funds for development so the communities there can build real livelihoods,” the EU official said.
International donors pledged $455 million for the Mali crisis in January and aid pledges are not expected on Tuesday.
Sixteen EU member states, as well as Norway, have offered troops for a 250-strong team the bloc plans to send to Mali to train the country's army, diplomats said. EU sources said member states were more reluctant to provide a 150-strong force whose job would be to protect the trainers from any security threat.
The Mali support group, formed last year, will also discuss steps to restore government services and ensure security in areas newly back under government control.
Mali descended into chaos after the coup last March, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the country. Islamist extremists, some allied with al-Qaeda, then hijacked the revolt.
The conflict exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the Sahel - a belt of land on the southern rim of the Sahara - where drought had brought millions to the brink of starvation.
Tuesday's meeting will discuss how to support a political process leading to elections that interim President Dioncounda Traore has said Mali hopes to organise on July 31. - Reuters