France and five West African states agreed to combine military forces under one command structure to fight a growing Islamist militancy in the Sahel, with Paris committing an extra 220 troops.
French President Emmanuel Macron called the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, known as the G5, to the French town Pau to discuss the battle against insurgents in the Sahel.
With growing anti-French sentiment in the five countries over Paris’ handling of an insurgency by Islamist militants that has seen hundreds of their soldiers killed in recent weeks, Macron warned he could withdraw French troops without a clear political commitment from them.
France, the former colonial power, has 4 500 troops in Mali and the wider Sahel, but security is progressively worsening. Macron said the situation was now clarified.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthened their foothold, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
“Today, more than ever, the fact is results, despite the effort, are below expectations of the population,” Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Kabore told a joint news conference. “It’s for this reason we decided to review the deployment and redefine the pillars for future action.”
The new structure, named Coalition for the Sahel, brings the G5 states, French forces and any future troops under a single command. It aims to enable joint operations, greater intelligence sharing and quicker response time in particular for French forces in the border areas linking Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, where the insurgency is at its worst.
CONCERNS OVER US PRESENCE
Criticised in France for allowing French troops to get bogged down and facing growing hostility in West Africa for failing to restore stability, Macron is increasingly frustrated, but the French leader appeared satisfied with Monday’s outcome.
Another 220 French troops will give fresh momentum to the fight with more European special forces expected to join in the coming months, he said.
“The priority is Islamic State in the Grand Sahara. It is our priority because it is the most dangerous,” Macron said. “We have no choice, we need results.”
French troops were hailed as heroes in 2013 when their intervention helped prevent an Islamist militant push to Bamako.
Their standing slipped as the security situation deteriorated. At least 89 local soldiers were killed in a suspected jihadist attack on an army base in Niger this weekend, security sources said.
Pau is home to a helicopter regiment which saw several soldiers killed in a helicopter collision in Mali in November.
Macron was worried by a possible withdrawal by the US military in the area. It provides intelligence, logistic and drone support for French forces. There are mixed signals from Washington it could pull out.
“If the Americans were to leave Africa it would be bad news for us,” Macron said. “I hope to convince President (Donald) Trump the fight against terrorism plays out in this region as well.”