African leaders agree to new joint counter-terrorism force
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Troops from five Sahel countries plan to set up a new counter-terror force in the region, where alarm over the jihadist threat is mounting, leaders said Monday in Mali's capital.
The announcement came as leaders of the Sahel G5 states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – that describe themselves as "in the frontline against terrorism", met to discuss the desert zone's perilous security situation.
The gathering took place barely three weeks after the worst attack in the region for years, the January 18 suicide bombing in the northern Malian city of Gao that left almost 80 people dead.
"To better combat terrorism in G5 countries, we have decided to implement the creation of a G5 force," President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger told a press conference.
There was no word on the number of troops the force would have or where they would be stationed.
Issoufou said a United Nations resolution and Security Council approval would be requested before the force could be formed.
Chad's President Idriss Deby said European nations would be asked for aid for the transnational project.
"What we want is for European countries to give us the means. We are going to be on the front line ourselves in the fight against terrorism," said Deby, speaking as current G5 chief.
Some 3,500 French troops are already stationed in the Sahel region as part of counter-terror efforts against an increasingly nimble array of Islamist groups, some of which are aligned with Al-Qaeda.
Hundreds of Europeans too are serving with the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeper force stationed in Mali, which has become the UN's most dangerous operation in two decades with 70 lives lost.
'A space for terrorists'
The new G5 deployment would "save the lives of (European) soldiers", Deby added.
The Chadian leader said earlier in the day that the Sahel region risked becoming "a space for terrorists" unless immediate, co-ordinated action was taken.
"The multiplication of terrorist attacks in the Sahel" shows the threat "has new proportions", Deby warned.
Chad and Niger are currently battling Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram, while jihadists in late 2015 and early 2016 struck tourist spots in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.
Experts say attacks mounted by jihadists and armed groups are on the rise and are increasingly targeting civilians in the largely desert zone.
January's deadly attack in the northern Malian city of Gao was claimed by Algerian jihadist and Al-Qaeda ally Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Northern Mali was described as a "known hideout for terrorists" in an internal G5 document seen by AFP.
"It is also a launchpad for attacks against other countries," the document said.
"We need to co-ordinate our efforts to rise up to the challenge," said Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, whose nation is struggling with jihadists who use its vast northern stretches as a launchpad for attacks.
Mauritania was once plagued by Islamist attacks within its borders, but has made significant security gains.