Nicosia - The European Union is looking at how it can help Mali combat an Islamist rebel takeover in the country's north after receiving a plea for assistance ranging from military training to equipment for clearing land mines, EU officials said on Thursday.
EU defence ministers meeting in Cyprus asked officials to draw up "options to support international efforts to assist Mali", Cyprus, current holder of the EU presidency, said in a statement.
Mali descended into chaos in March after a military coup toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled local Tuareg rebels to seize nearly two-thirds of the country.
Islamist groups have since hijacked the rebellion in the north, imposing strict Islamic law and spurring fears that they could further destabilise the region.
The fragile interim government that now holds Mali's capital, Bamako, has asked the U.N. Security Council to authorise military intervention in the country's north. West African regional body ECOWAS has said it would be ready to send in troops.
The EU has received a request from ECOWAS to support its potential mission in Mali as well as a separate request from the interim Mali government to help with the restructuring of its army, Maciej Popowski, deputy secretary general of the EU's diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service, told a news conference after the defence ministers met in Nicosia.
"We are studying these requests," he said, adding that EU foreign ministers would return to the subject when they meet in Luxembourg on October 15.
"The European Union is ready to play an active role in coordinating the international effort," he said.
'Varying degrees of enthusiasm'
An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mali authorities had asked the EU to help train troops and to supply de-mining equipment and logistical support.
The EU is not talking about sending soldiers to be part of the international force but officials say that, if the EU agreed to train Mali soldiers, this would require military trainers.
No minister at the Cyprus meeting objected to looking at helping Mali, but there were "varying degrees of enthusiasm", the EU official said.
The EU is awaiting the outcome of the Security Council's discussions before drawing up more specific plans to help Mali.
U.N. members appeared deeply divided over the crisis on Wednesday, with former colonial power France and some of Mali's neighbours backing possible military intervention, while the United States said Mali must first have an elected government.
EU governments agreed in July to send experts to Mali's neighbour Niger to train its forces to fight al Qaeda, signalling European concern over the growing threat of Islamist militancy in Africa's Sahel region.