BRUSSELS - The European Union is "extremely concerned" by the worsening security situation in Mali, where al-Qaida's North Africa branch has seized control of the north of the country, the EU foreign policy chief said Monday.
EU foreign ministers said they would support the deployment of West African forces to Mali to help stabilize the situation.
Extremist Islamists have wrested control of a region the size of France in northern Mali and proclaimed an Islamic state. Last week, the EU decided to send an advisory team to neighbouring Niger to train local security forces to combat terrorist and criminal networks.
The mission is part of an EU strategy aimed at preventing militants from seizing control of vast swathes of territory, allowing them to mount attacks against North African nations or even against Europe itself.
"We're extremely concerned by the situation in Mali," said Catherine Ashton, who heads the bloc's diplomatic service.
Large quantities of arms and ammunition — including heavy weapons and artillery — looted by Libyan rebels fighting the regime of former strongman Moammar Gadhafi were smuggled into Niger and other nations in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa. Much of this arsenal is believed to have ended up in the hands of a militant group known as AQIM, or al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The U.N. refugee agency says some 300,000 people have already fled violence in Mali, and another 140,000 Malians are expected to leave their homes amid ongoing unrest.