BRUSSELS (AP) — A plan to turn Mali into a stable democracy and prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven got a boost Wednesday as European nations lined up to pledge hundreds of millions of euros in aid for the conflict-ridden West African nation.
The objective of the donors' conference in Brussels is to raise 2 billion euros ($2.6 billion) to support an ambitious 4.3 billion euro ($5.6 billion) plan drafted by Malian officials that aims to help the country recuperate from internal struggles with Islamic extremists.
By mid-day Wednesday, around half the conference goal was met.
French President Francois Hollande said his country would contribute 280 million euros ($363.3 million). Germany committed 100 million euros to the project, to be paid out through 2014 provided Mali's transition process and planned elections take place.
And a British official said the U.K. would pledge 128 million pounds ($195 million) to help make Mali and the broader Sahel region more secure — but it was unclear how much of that was specifically for Mali and would go toward meeting the conference's goal.
The day before the conference, the European Union announced it would give 520 million euros ($674.8 million) over the next two years — more than one-quarter of the amount sought.
Mali fell into crisis in 2012 as rebel groups took over the north and a military coup ousted the government, based in the south. Many international officials feared that Mali's vast ungoverned northern area was giving terrorist groups free reign to hatch worldwide plots.
In January, France, Mali's former colonial master — acting on the request of the Malian government — sent troops to retake control of the northern region. They were ultimately assisted by troops from other African countries and the effort has largely been a success.
But the question is what comes next.
"The war is being won," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday. "We must now win the peace."
As the conference opened Wednesday, Mali's finance minister, Tiena Coulibaly, said the country's crisis had grave consequences for Malians, as hotels stood empty and trade and the economy collapsed.
"This has led to poverty — extreme poverty — to unemployment and the occurrence of disease," Coulibaly said.
Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program, also described a dire situation for Malians.
"We still have 300,000 people who are internally displaced from northern Mali living in southern Mali, and another 175,000 people who are in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania," Cousin told The Associated Press. "The government is now estimating that over 660,000 children under the age of five are in danger of being chronically malnourished."
Beyond that, she said, more than 700,000 adults "are in need of immediate food assistance."
EU officials, saying that elements of the Malian army were unpaid and poorly trained, sent a mission earlier this year to train portions of the armed forces so that in the future they could keep control of the country's territory without foreign help.
But international officials have insisted that, in exchange for assistance, Mali return to democracy. Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traore, said Tuesday that presidential elections would begin July 28 and that neither he nor members of his government would be candidates.
Mali's needs are enormous, according to EU officials. Roads and schools need to be rebuilt, as well as the economy. Talks with different ethnic groups — including the Tuaregs in the north, who have rebelled periodically for years — must be held.
Wednesday's conference was organized by France, the European Union and Mali.
Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.
Don Melvin can be reached at https://twitter.com/Don_Melvin
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