French defence minister Yves Le Drian says his country will in early August deploy more than 3 000 soldiers to start military operations under its broadened trans-Sahel counter-terrorism initiative which is set to operate from a string of bases in Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania.
The regional force will have its main air force base in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, a regional operations base in the Malian city of Gao, a special forces base in Ouagadougou and an intelligence base in the Nigerien capital Niamey.
Code-named ‘Operation Barkhane,’ the new operation seeks to track down and disrupt several Islamist trans-Sahel jihadist militant networks which retreated into the remote and largely ungoverned pockets of the Sahel to regroup after being pushed out of Mali by French forces early in 2013.
Le Drian said the new counter-terror operation, which spans five nations, follows the successful conclusion of ‘Operation Serval’ in Mali, which drove Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO) and Ansar al Dine out of northern Mali early last year.
Speaking soon after the signing of a defence pact which provides for a long-term stationing of 1 200 French troops in the Malian city of Gao, Le Drian said 200 armoured personnel carriers (APCs), 10 heavy-lift transport aircraft, 6 fighter planes, 20 helicopters and 3 unmanned aerial vehicles will be deployed to meet the logistical and operational needs of the task-force.
He said the establishment of the trans-Sahelian counter-terrorism force is aimed at restoring security by improving the intelligence gathering capacities of member states, the training of local forces and intelligence-sharing by the security agencies of the participating regional powers.
Le Drian added that France believes most of Africa remains at risk of being turned into terrorist sanctuary.
“There still is a major risk that jihadists networks will continue to develop in the area that runs from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” Le Drian told Radio France International (RFI).
Commenting on the new mission, President Francois Hollande said through ‘Operation Barkhane’, France wants to secure all places deemed as safe havens for terrorism and militancy in the Sahel.
“There is no longer any safe haven for terrorist groups in Mali. Our nation’s total determination is to counteract the jihadists in the Sahel in order to strengthen France’s security and the stability of the states in the region,” Hollande said.
Strategic security analyst have warned that militant groups driven out of northern Mali have largely regrouped in remote and loosely governed stretches of the Sahel and pose a renewed security risk to all countries in the region.
In August last year, a new trans-Sahel militant group calling itself ‘The Mourabitounes’ was created by former Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) regional leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The group has since declared war on France and French interests in the region. It has been blamed for a string of kidnappings of foreigners and recently claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb attack which killed one French soldier and injured six others in northern Mali.