France and five allied Sahel countries have reached a "turning point" in their fight against Islamist militants, President Emmanuel Macron said Sunday, wrapping up a weekend visit to the troubled region.
"The coming weeks will be absolutely decisive in the fight we are waging against terrorism," Macron said in the Niger capital Niamey, where he paid homage to 71 Nigerien soldiers killed in an Islamist attack earlier this month.
"We are at a turning point in this war," he said.
France and the five Sahel countries hosting French troops had to "define the military, political and development goals of the next six, 12 and 18 months much more clearly" at a summit in southwestern France next month, he added.
Macron began his visit to the region in Ivory Coast on Friday, celebrating Christmas with French soldiers stationed there.
The role of former colonial power France in the region has come under the spotlight following a renewed jihadist insurgency that has raised questions about the effectiveness of French and UN troops there.
"We need the political conditions to accompany the military work we do," he told the 4,500-strong French contingent in Ivory Coast.
In Niamey, he said: "I see opposition movements, groups, who denounce the French presence as a neo-colonial, imperialist."
Complaining of a lack of "clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings", Macron said he was loath to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not "clearly wanted".
The leaders of the anti-jihadist G5 Sahel alliance grouping Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad are to meet in Pau, France, on January 13.
There, they would clarify the "political and strategic framework" of their operations, said Macron.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou said the summit would "launch an appeal for international solidarity so that the Sahel and France are not alone in this fight".
Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Saturday told French television the G5 leaders would deliver a message demanding a "respectable and respectful" relationship with France.
On Saturday, in a speech to the French community in Ivory Coast, Macron said 33 "terrorists" had been "neutralised" in neighbouring Mali. A source close to the presidency confirmed that this meant they had been killed.
French soldiers also released two Malian gendarmes being held by jihadists, Macron said.
The operation involved teams of commandos and attack helicopters in the flashpoint city of Mopti in central Mali.
"This considerable success shows the commitment of our forces, the support that we bring to Mali, to the region and to our own security," Macron said.
The French armed forces ministry in a statement said the Mopti military operation targeted a camp where jihadists had gathered in a densely wooded area and fighting continued into the morning.
French forces captured a stash of heavy weaponry, four vehicles, including one mounted with an anti-aircraft canon, and motorbikes.
But the successful Mali operation came just weeks after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash as they hunted jihadists in the country's north.
Last month's crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades.
"We have had losses, we also have victories this morning thanks to the commitment of our soldiers and Operation Barkhane," he said, referring to France's military operation against Islamist militants in the Sahel.
Despite a French troop presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict that erupted in 2012 has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.