Taoiseach Leo Varadkar begins a visit to Mali today where he will visit Irish troops involved in a European Union training mission. 

It is part of a week-long programme in Africa during which he will also be visiting Ethiopia.

The Taoiseach, Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe and Defence Forces Chief of Staff Mark Mellett will be meeting the 20 Irish military personnel in Mali serving on the EU training mission. 

The numbers from Ireland involved in training the Malian army have doubled since the first deployment of 10 in 2013.

Twenty-five other EU countries are also involved in the mission, which operates under a UN mandate.

Separately, a UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA is also in place in Mali. The French army also provides bilateral support to the Malian army.

The Taoiseach will be visiting the headquarters of the EU training mission in the capital Bamako and will travel to see the training camp at Koulikoro.

The Irish Defence Forces are providing instruction in urban combat, bomb disposal and international human rights law to the Malian forces at the training centre.

There has been a steep rise in the activities of a coalition of al-Qaeda affiliates, JNIM (Jama'atal-Islam wal Muslimin) in Mali and across the wider Sahel region since 2015.

The number of attacks has gone up from around 160 in 2015 to over 780 by the middle of last year as the group pushed into central Mali from the north.

As well as fighting government forces and targeting civilians, JNIM also mounted attacks on the French military, which has been carrying out anti-insurgency operations in the country in support of the Malian Army. UN bases have also been attacked.

The French army intervened in Mali in January 2013 after an insurgency by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) insurgents from the north of the country. Mali was a French colony until 1960.

During the 2013 conflict, a military coup was also mounted by officers frustrated with setbacks suffered by government forces. 

UN peacekeepers were deployed in the country in mid-2013 after an agreement was signed between the former MNLA combatants and a transitional government, which was put in place after the military junta stepped down.

The UN peacekeeping deployment facilitated the holding of elections in July 2013 and peace agreement between the government and armed factions was signed in 2015.

However armed groups, including former allies, continue to engage in fighting with each other and against the Malian government forces.

A UN Expert Panel on Mali last year said in a report that "terrorism and organised crime are the drivers of insecurity in northern and central Mali today, leading to a dire humanitarian situation.

"Intercommunal violence…further aggravates the situation, generating a new wave of refugees and internally displaced persons. Return or repatriation has not been possible in 2018 owing to the constant threat of kidnapping, extortion, murder and summary execution by armed and terrorist groups, as well as drought, famine and a lack of basic services in areas of return".

The UN report was also critical of Malian government forces.

It said that civilians had been killed in counter-terror operations: "Anti-terrorist operations conducted by the Malian army in northern and central Mali, as well as by ‘compliant’ armed groups…have led to civilian killings and amplified intercommunal violence".

The operations were also seen by local armed groups as a cover for redeploying to northern areas, in violation of an existing agreement.