German Defense Chief on Africa Tour Signals More Active Presence

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen visited troops in Mali during a two-day tour of Africa as she signaled a more active military role of Europe’s largest economy in international peacekeeping missions.

The minister landed in the capital Bamako today for talks with Malian officials before traveling to Koulikoro, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) to the northeast, to visit a German training mission, a ministry spokesman said in Berlin. She had previously visited a German transport mission in Senegal.

“Africa lies in the hands of Africans,” von der Leyen, 55, said yesterday before departing Berlin, according to the ministry. “But we Europeans can provide help and support, for which the German contribution is enormously important.”

The new defense minister has begun a debate about a more robust presence in international military interventions since taking office seven weeks ago. She flew out after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved an increase in the German training mission to Mali to as many as 250 troops from 180.

Last week at the Munich Security Conference, von der Leyen promoted increased contributions to European Union missions as Germany scales back its presence in Afghanistan with the end of the NATO mission there by the end of this year.

“As a major economy and a country of significant size we have a strong interest in international peace and stability,” von der Leyen told an audience on Jan. 31 at the conference.

Her comments followed a keynote speech in Munich by German President Joachim Gauck, who said that Germany must step out of the shadow of its past and become more engaged in international missions “earlier, more decisively and more substantially.”

Syria Role

Merkel’s government announced last month that it will destroy Syrian chemical weapons on its soil as part of an accord struck with President Bashar al-Assad. The defense minister has also said the country will send peacekeeping troops to the Central African Republic “if needed.”

Germany has just over 3,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the decade-long NATO mission, the third-largest contingent behind the U.S. and U.K. Merkel’s cabinet yesterday approved a German presence of between 600 and 800 troops as part of any post-NATO mission in Afghanistan.

The German presence in Mali is part of the EU’s contribution to the United Nations peacekeeping force of some 5,200 troops, known as Minusma. France deployed troops to the West African Nation early last year to prevent Islamist rebels allied to al-Qaeda from taking over the rest of Mali.

Merkel’s spokesman said yesterday that German troops won’t be taking part in Malian fighting missions or any other direct military support as part of Minusma.

“That won’t take place,” he told reporters.

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