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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union states agreed on Thursday to send hundreds of military personnel to train Mali government forces in fighting Islamist rebels, whose campaign to impose Islamic law across north Africa is causing growing unease in Western capitals.
The training mission has been the subject of discussions for weeks but the sense of urgency has grown since the al Qaeda-linked rebels pushed beyond their stronghold in northern Mali to threaten the capital Bamako and France launched air strikes to drive them back.
Foreign ministers of the EU's 27 governments took the decision to set up the mission at an emergency meeting in Brussels to discuss the crisis in the Sahara.
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 EU powerbroker France pull its troops out of Mali.
EU governments are hoping to train Mali's army - crippled by political divisions and a series of defeats to the rebels - but have no plans to send EU combat forces aside from the French.
"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," Britain's Europe minister David Lidington said before the meeting in Brussels.
The civil war in Libya that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 made it easier for militant groups operating in the thinly-populated Sahara to acquire weapons.
Western and regional governments fear northern Mali has now become a haven for a variety of Islamist groups and a base for attacks on Europe.
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, although the exact number will be decided following a security assessment in the coming days.
It will provide basic training, advise the Malian authorities on command structure and logistics and instruct them on matters such as dealing with prisoners. They will not mentor Malian soldiers in battle.
"We will not go north. We will stay in the training areas," one 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 grouping.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that meant its peers in the European Union 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 strong logistical support for the Mali operation. Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Berlin was providing two Transall military planes to transport West African troops.
Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak, Barbara Lewis and Robert-Jan Bartunek; Editing by Rex Merrifield and Tom Pfeiffer