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World News

Despite coup, France and allies push on with new Mali task force

FILE PHOTO: A French soldier of the "Belleface" Desert Tactical Group (GTD) uses a sniffer dog to check for explosives during an area control operation in the Gourma region during the Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) - European special forces are set to begin fighting alongside Malian troops against Islamist militants in the coming weeks despite a military coup that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, French officials said on Thursday.

The junta, which on Wednesday replaced senior military officials appointed from the previous administration, is consulting on a transition plan with Mali’s political parties and civil society groups.

Former colonial power France has more than 5,100 personnel spread across the region with a large portion in Mali operating against rising militancy. Paris has been counting on a new task force of hundreds of European special forces, including from Estonia, Italy, Sweden and Czech Republic to join its operation and integrate local battalions to help improve their efficiency.

On Wednesday, France hosted a meeting of some 18 European and international partners, including EU countries operating in the country and the United States to ensure none were planning to suspend their activities or support.

“As far as Takouba (special forces task force) is concerned the calendar is maintained,” an official from the French armed forces ministry said, adding that the aim was to begin joint operations in the next few weeks.

A second official said the task force was expected to be at full operational capacity by Feb. 2021.

A European military training mission has been suspended, but it has said it would resume operations once the transition was clear.

One of the officials said the junta had made it clear it did not want to interrupt military operations, fearing it could open up a security void.

Mali has struggled to find stability since 2012 when a Tuareg rebellion in the north was hijacked by Islamist militants. Partners are worried that the instability in Bamako could derail the fight against those groups.

Reporting by John Irish; editing by Bate Felix and Philippa Fletcher

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