STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The European Union will speed up plans for a military training mission for the Malian army and take other steps to help the country as it fights Islamist rebels, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Tuesday.
France has poured hundreds of soldiers into Mali and carried out air raids since Friday in the north of the country, which Western and regional states fear could become a base for attacks by Islamist militants in Africa and Europe.
The European Union has ruled out taking any combat role in Mali, but plans to send military trainers.
"We're going to adapt accordingly the details of our European mission," and send preparatory elements of the mission quicker than previously planned, Ashton said in a speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Officials from all EU member states meeting in Brussels on Tuesday backed that move, a European diplomat said.
EU foreign ministers are expected at an extraordinary meeting on Mali on Thursday to formally establish the training mission and to appoint French General Francois Lecointre as its commander, the diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The trainers would be sent to Mali by mid-February, about two weeks earlier than previously expected.
Training of Malian soldiers could start around early March and the mission would reach its full strength of 200 trainers by early April, the diplomat said.
Lecointre plans to go to Mali's capital Bamako on Sunday with a small group of advisers for a three-day visit to assess the situation, the diplomat said.
There was general agreement at Tuesday's meeting that the EU should give financial support to a West African intervention force due to be sent to Mali, although no amount was agreed, he said. EU development aid for Mali, suspended following a military coup in March, is also expected to be resumed, he said.
Ashton said security threats stemming from upheaval in Mali extended to Europe, as the rebels were using territory they had seized for arms smuggling and drug trafficking. EU governments planned to adopt new measures to help the country, she said, without giving details.
"Colleagues have put together a package of measures that will provide immediate and longer-term help to the Malian government and people," Ashton said.
Reporting by Claire Davenport, Adrian Croft, Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Robin Pomeroy