Troops from 15 West African countries are finishing up French-led training in Benin on how to manage peacekeeping operations.
Using their own helicopters, West African troops practiced rescuing people from a pretend village under heavy fire and evacuating them to a makeshift refugee camp, about 150 kilometers from the capital Cotonou. The purpose of the exercise was to simulate a humanitarian intervention in a war-torn west African state
The spokesman for the training, French Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Perret, says the 10-day exercise involved a worst case-scenario of ethnic and resource-based tensions.
"We have refugees, problems of economic resources, we have to secure an area, we have soldier kids, and so on," he said. "They have to manage also the NGOs [non-governmental organizations], also the media, and it is more and more complicated."
Two thousand troops participated in the exercises called "Reinforcement of African Peacekeeping Capabilities." Trainees came from South Africa and 15 out of 16 countries from the Economic Community of West African states. Only Liberia, which does not have an army because it has been disarmed as part of a peace process, was absent.
Instructors came from France, other European countries, Canada and the United States. Lieutenant Colonel Perret says foreign powers often portrayed as rivals in Africa worked as a team.
"U.K. and [United] States have worked really together with the French to elaborate a more significant and interesting concept," said Philippe Perret. "So they participate with us with many advisors, experts in different specialties as medical, security, headquarters officers and like that."
The French spokesman also defended France against criticism that it acts as a neo-colonial power. He said officers from the Ivory Coast were taking part in the exercises, even though there have been growing tensions involving French peacekeepers and the Ivorian army in that divided country.
A spokesman for Benin's host army, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Gbegan, says reaction in his country has been positive.
He says the training will leave behind newly built hospitals, schools, and confidence that West Africans will be better equipped to handle conflicts in their region. The training was in its fourth edition this year, but much more elaborate than in previous exercises.
The goal is for the ECOWAS group to establish a 1,500 troop standby force that could be deployed within 30 days to a conflict area, so that the regional grouping can become more self-sufficient in peacemaking efforts.
Troops from the United States, France, and Britain provided the most crucial phases of rapid reaction to help end recent fighting in Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.