By Ethan Bilby
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states will send more than 200 military personnel to train Mali government forces in the fight against Islamist rebels.
The training mission has been under discussion for weeks but became more urgent after the al Qaeda-linked rebels pushed beyond their stronghold in northern Mali to threaten the capital Bamako, leading France to intervene last week.
EU foreign ministers gave the go-ahead at an emergency meeting on the Sahara crisis in Brussels on Thursday.
Western stakes in the crisis were underlined when Islamist gunmen took dozens of foreign and local workers hostage at an Algerian desert gas facility on Wednesday, demanding that France pull its troops out of Mali.
EU governments intend to train the Malian army - wracked by political divisions and a series of defeats to the rebels - but have no plans to broaden the mission to a combat role.
"Alongside the military response which the French are leading, we need to work on training Malian forces so they are able to exercise control over their own territory," British Europe minister David Lidington said before the meeting.
Governments fear northern Mali has now become a haven for a variety of Islamist groups and a base for attacks on Europe. Aside from helping Bamako restore its rule throughout Mali, they want to stop Islamist influence from spreading in West Africa.
The trend has gathered pace since the civil war in Libya that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 made it easier for militant groups operating in the thinly-populated Sahara to obtain arms.
Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly, who travelled to Brussels to brief European foreign ministers, pleaded for help.
"A country like mine with limited resources needs assistance," he told reporters. "We need an international coalition: civilization versus terrorism, that's what we need."
The EU's mission, which it aims to launch by mid-February, will comprise about 200 to 250 military trainers as well as some security personnel.
It will provide basic battle training, advise the Malian authorities on command structure and logistics, and instruct them on matters such as dealing with prisoners. They will not advise Malian soldiers in battle.
"We will not go north. We will stay in the training areas," a senior EU official said.
France is eager to transfer leadership of its operation to Malian troops and forces promised by nations of the West African ECOWAS regional organization. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that meant its peers in the EU had to help more.
"You have to understand that, even though France is the leader, all the European countries are affected by terrorism," he told reporters in Brussels.
Britain is giving France logistical support for the Mali operation. Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin was providing planes to move West African troops.
Several others, EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said, were also ready to help France.
"On the military support, there were a number of countries who made it very clear to France that they would be willing to help France in every way," she said. "They did not rule in or rule out any aspect of that including military support."
EU development chief Andris Piebalgs said the bloc will give 50 million euros ($66 million) of funding to the West African force and held out the prospect of unblocking 250 million euros in aid for Mali that was frozen after a coup in March 2012.
In return, it wants the Malian government to move quickly to reunite the country and organize elections.
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(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Barbara Lewis, Adrian Croft and Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Angus MacSwan)