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14.01.2020 Africa

France, Sahel nations vow to step up anti-jihadist fight

By Laurence Benhamou and Marie Wolfrom
With insurgent attacks mounting, hostility towards France is growing in the region, including in Mali where the French were acclaimed as liberators in 2013.  By Daphné BENOIT (AFP)
LISTEN JAN 14, 2020
With insurgent attacks mounting, hostility towards France is growing in the region, including in Mali where the French were acclaimed as liberators in 2013. By Daphné BENOIT (AFP)

France and its five partner nations in the Sahel region of West Africa pledged Monday to bolster their fight against jihadists waging an increasingly deadly insurgency, while urging allies to join their effort to restore government control across the vast region.

President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad also called on Washington to maintain its "crucial support", after a top US general confirmed the Pentagon was weighing a drastic troop reduction in Africa.

"The heads of state... underscored the need for greater cooperation in implementing the current initiatives in the Sahel and a stronger international commitment," the leaders said after a summit in Pau, southwest France.

At a press conference after the talks, Macron said he would send 220 more soldiers to reinforce France's 4,500-strong Barkhane operation, tasked with training and assisting under-equipped and strained local forces.

The so-called G5 leaders also urged joint efforts to help end the civil war in Libya, "which continues to foster instability in the Sahel," according to the statement.

The summit comes as France's military presence, which began in Mali in 2012, is being questioned by many in the region who chafe at the increasingly prominent role played by a former colonial power.

Such criticism had riled French officials, not least after 13 soldiers were killed in a helicopter collision in Mali last month while pursuing jihadist fighters, the deadliest toll for the French military in nearly four decades.

"The G5 leaders expressed their desire for France's continued engagement in the Sahel, and urged a greater international presence at their side," the statement said.

'Clear position'

Visiting the region last month, Macron complained of a lack of "clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings" on the ground, saying he was loath to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not "clearly wanted".

On Friday, hundreds of people gathered in the Malian capital Bamako to protest the presence of the 4,500 soldiers in France's Barkhane operation, carrying posters reading "Down with France, Barkhane must leave" and "France is a brake on our development".

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita held talks with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris last November.  By LUDOVIC MARIN (AFP/File) Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita held talks with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in Paris last November. By LUDOVIC MARIN (AFP/File)

On Saturday, Defence Minister Florence Parly was more blunt: "We need to determine a clear position from political leaders on what they want or not," she told France Inter radio, noting that 41 French soldiers have been killed in the Sahel region since 2013.

Jihadist fighters have recently stepped up their campaign against military and civilian targets, with UN chief Antonio Guterres warning this month that "terrorist groups are gaining ground."

On Thursday, 89 soldiers were killed in an attack on a military camp at Chinegodar near Niger's border with Mali, the worst jihadist attack in its history.

Guterres was to attend a dinner later with Macron and the Sahel leaders, along with the heads of the EU Council and the African Union.

Cash shortfall

Despite the French presence and a 13,000-member UN peacekeeping force in Mali dubbed MINUSMA, the conflict that erupted in the north of that country in 2012 has since spread to its neighbours, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than a million displaced, with hundreds of troops dead, including dozens of French ones.

Macron had called for a clarification of the "political and strategic framework" of the Sahel fight in his talks with Mali's Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Burkina Faso's Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou, Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Chad's Idriss Deby.

Macron ordered a review of the Barkhane operation after the Mali helicopter disaster, saying "all options are on the table," implying a potential drawdown of French troops.

France's President Emmanuel Macron stands in front of the coffins of 13 French soldiers killed in action in Mali last November.  By Eliot BLONDET (POOL/AFP) France's President Emmanuel Macron stands in front of the coffins of 13 French soldiers killed in action in Mali last November. By Eliot BLONDET (POOL/AFP)

France has long complained that only Britain and the US have provided support for the operation, deploring the lack of significant contributions from EU allies.

Last year, only $300 million (269 million euros) of $400 million pledged by the international community in cash and material support to the Sahel was delivered, according to the French presidency.

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