By Paul Lorgerie
MOPTI, Mali (Reuters) - The long barrel of a howitzer cannon aims into scrubland around a military base in conflict-hit central Mali. After a countdown, a soldier pulls the firing lanyard, but no round shoots to the horizon. Instead an officer shouts: "BOOM!"
From the shade of a nearby tree, four European Union military trainers watch as members of Mali's 614th Artillery Battalion practise newly honed skills they hope will help the army gain an upper hand in its years-long fight with Islamist rebels.
The growing reach of militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has fuelled a security crisis in Mali and the broader Sahel region, with an eight-fold increase in deadly attacks from 2015 to 2020 and over 5 million people displaced.
With a range of up to 21 kilometres (13 miles), the howitzers allow the battalion to support infantry troops from afar as they face off against the rebels in Mali's vast arid borderlands with Niger and Burkina Faso.
"At the same time they don't have to be exposed to the enemy," said Spanish Captain de la Pena, who led the nine weeks of training by the EU military mission in Mali (EUTM).
Drawn up in late 2012 to help Mali's army regain control of the country after France drove out Islamists in the north, EUTM has provided training in intelligence, driving, explosives detection and artillery to close to 14,000 Malian soldiers.
Despite these efforts and the presence of over 13,000 U.N. peacekeepers and 5,100 French troops, the militants have rebounded and made swathes of central and northern Mali ungovernable.
Dozens of Malian soldiers have been killed in rebel attacks this year alone.
On the last day of training in mid-May, the soldiers of the 614th Artillery Battalion seem confident, some smiling and joking as they march in fatigues and green berets across the hard-packed dirt of the Sevare campground in Mopti region.
A sub-officer calls the troops to attention and warns them: "Training is at an end. We should now be ready for the battlefield."
(Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Jan Harvey)