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France will continue to support Mali, Hollande tells France-Africa summit

STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN, AFP | French President François Hollande delivers a speech at the 27th Africa-France Summit in Bamako.

At the 27th Africa-France Summit in Bamako on Saturday, French President François Hollande reaffirmed his commitment to peace in Mali as more than 30 African leaders gathered to discuss security issues and ensuring peaceful transitions of power.

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Leaders from across the continent gathered in the Malian capital Bamako to discuss cross-border jihad, governance challenges and Africa's role in the European migrant crisis.

On January 11, 2013, France launched a military operation to halt an offensive by al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups that had taken over much of northern Mali and threatened to sweep through the capital.

"France will always remain at Mali's side until the peace process is completed, until the Malian state can have its authority respected throughout Malian territory," Hollande said as the summit opened on Saturday.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was quick to praise Hollande's commitment. "Of all the French heads of state, François Hollande is the one whose dealings with Africa have been the most sincere and the most loyal," he said.

Hollande went on to hail the fact that "terrorists no longer control any [Malian] territory, democracy has returned and elections have taken place". But Mali nevertheless remains one of the world's most fragile states.

In a bid to help crush the jihadist threat, France has trained more than 20,000 African soldiers every year since 2013, according to a French diplomatic source. By 2020, the number of French-trained troops is expected to reach 25,000 a year. The training aims to minimise the need for future military interventions in African conflicts, such as those launched in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013.

However, the situation in key nations such as Mali remains far from stable, where France's continued military presence is not welcomed by all.

Overshadowing the summit was an admission by the French defence ministry on Friday that French soldiers deployed to northern Mali had killed a child jihadist during a counter-terror operation in November.

According to the French-language magazine Jeune Afrique (Young Africa), the victim was buried in secret by the soldiers.

Leadership crises

As the international community seeks an end to Gambia's political crisis, Gambian President-elect Adama Barrow readied to meet with world leaders at the summit. President Yahya Jammeh is refusing to cede power after disputing the result of a December 1 election that secured a victory for Barrow.

The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS), a 15-nation regional bloc, has repeatedly called on Jammeh to respect the result of the vote and step down after 22 years in power.

Jammeh has made it clear he will not stand aside until the country's Supreme Court rules on his legal challenge, which seeks to annul the result of last month's polls, which he had initially conceded.

Barrow flew to Bamako unexpectedly after holding crisis talks in Banjul with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Liberian leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Ghana's John Mahama. The delegation of West African heavyweights also met with Jammeh.

In a sign of Barrow's growing international clout, a French diplomatic source told AFP that President Hollande "intends to meet" with Barrow.

There are just four days now left in Jammeh's five-year term, but he warned the international community on Tuesday against "undue external interference".

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, said on Friday that ECOWAS would ask the Security Council to approve the deployment of troops to Gambia if Jammeh refuses to cede power.

Many of the nations attending the gathering were once colonies of France, which in recent years has boosted its military involvement on the continent.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who have a particularly tense relationship with Paris, are also present at the talks.

Discussions were also expected to focus on the repeated flouting of African constitutions in recent years. Kagame has altered the constitution to remove term limits, to the dismay of democracy advocates on the continent. Another concern for the summit is unrest in Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down has sparked a political crisis.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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