Nigerian troops in the military town of Jaji prepare to depart for Mali. (Associated Press )
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Malian government forces Thursday reportedly pressed to keep Al Qaeda-linked militants out of the village of Banamba as rebels struck fear into nearby Diabaly.
The European Union, meanwhile, authorized sending a noncombat training mission to the West African nation.
Malian officials sent about 100 soldiers to Banamba, 90 miles north of the capital, Bamako, after sightings of suspected Islamist militants in the area, according to news reports.
Al Qaeda militias have already infiltrated Diabaly, in effect using the population as a human shield, moving around in small groups to avoid being targeted in airstrikes by France, taking over homes and preventing residents from leaving, the reports said.
"They stationed themselves outside my house with a heavy weapon. I don't know what sort it was," resident Thiemogo Coulibaly told the Associated Press. "After that came the bombing, which went on from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and after that, one of them [militants] jumped over my garden wall to grab the keys to my car."
African forces from outside Mali are expected to arrive within days. Assistance from Western powers other than France, the former colonial power in Mali and other parts of West Africa, has been limited to logistical and intelligence support.
The EU said its mission would provide instruction to the Malian army on matters of command and control, logistics, civilian protection and humanitarian law.
EU foreign ministers said they hoped to launch the training mission to Mali by mid-February. They condemned the "acts being carried out by terrorist groups against the Malian armed forces," but also warned both sides of the conflict to respect civilian safety and human rights. "All the parties and individuals involved in Mali will be held responsible for their actions," the ministers said.
Although dispatching the training team will require another decision by European leaders, the move Thursday was aimed at bolstering support for the Malian government and came days after major EU power France launched its own military operation.
"The threat of jihadi terrorists is something that should be a matter of great concern to all of us," Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said outside a meeting with his EU counterparts in Brussels. "And there is not one European country that can hide if this threat would present itself to the European continent."
Malian forces are trying to turn back militants who have established control over much of northern Mali and who have tried pushing south toward Bamako. French airstrikes and troops have backed up the Malian military, which has appealed for outside help.
The EU training mission would last 15 months, cost about $16 million and be based in Bamako. Officials named a French general to head the team, which would comprise about 450 people.
The main weakness in France's bid to oust what it sees as a terrorist threat on its backdoor step, analysts say, is the lack of a large and capable ground force strong enough to drive out the well-armed, battle-hardened militias.
Militant forces gained control of Diabaly on Monday, several days after French airstrikes began. The insurgents took Malian forces by surprise, exposing the weakness of the local army.
About 1,400 French forces are in Mali, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, with an additional 1,100 due to arrive as the battle unfolds.
About 200 Nigerian troops are also expected in Mali within days, the first of 3,300 African forces promised by neighboring countries, many of whom have little experience in the harsh desert terrain they will face in Mali.
France has outlined an ambitious operation to oust Ansar Dine and other Al Qaeda-linked groups and to restore territorial integrity and political stability.
Dixon reported from Johannesburg and Chu from London.