PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of five countries in West Africa have pledged to step up the fight against the growing insurgency in the Sahel region. As part of their efforts, military coordination will be improved by the establishment of an integrated command structure.
Macron also announced that an additional 220 French troops will join the 4,500 already deployed to Operation Barkhane, which targets militants in the region.
In a joint press conference after his summit with the leaders of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania — the G5 Sahel nations — the French premier said they “reconfirmed their commitment and involvement with the French and European presence in the Sahel.”
He added: “The priority is Islamic State in the Grand Sahara. ... It is our priority because it is the most dangerous” militant faction. “We have no choice; we need results.”
To help achieve those results, he said, “we are changing our methods by implementing a joint command between ourselves and the G5 Sahel, combining our military forces and our intelligence services with much stronger engagement.”
Macron also thanked other European nations that have pledged to send troops to join a new French-led Takuba Task Force, which will hunt insurgents in the mostly lawless border area linking Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. No details were given of which countries will participate, but the goal is to restore and consolidate the power of the legitimate political leaders in the region.
“The political goal is complementary to the military one because our enemy wants to break sovereignty,” said Macron.
The French president and the African leaders also praised Washington for its “crucial support,” after a top US general confirmed that the Pentagon was considering a drastic troop reduction in Africa. Macron added that he will try to persuade his American counterpart, Donald Trump, to reconsider any withdrawal of US troops. US intelligence and logistical support, including air support and surveillance from drones, is considered vital to the operations.
“If our American friends decide to pull out of Africa this would be bad news for us,” said Macron. “I hope to be able to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism that he is committed to is at stake in this region. You cannot separate Libya from the Sahel or Lake Chad region. If we were to lose in any of these three places, terrorism would proliferate.” This, he added, would jeopardize the security of many states.
Macron called the summit, held in the town of Pau in southwest France, after 89 soldiers were killed on Jan. 9 in an attack by insurgents on an army base in the western town of Chinagodrar in Niger.
Amid growing anti-French sentiment in the five countries over the handling of the fight against the insurgency, in which hundreds of soldiers have been killed in recent weeks, Macron had warned that he might withdraw French troops without a clear political commitment from the African leaders.
The insurgency began in Mali in 2012 and soon spread to neighboring countries, with Burkina Faso and Niger particularly badly affected. Despite the presence of a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, in addition to the French forces, the situation has been deteriorating. Militants linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh have strengthened their foothold, leaving large areas ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.
— (With input from Reuters, AFP)