France, Sahel nations pledge to bolster anti-jihadist fight, urge US to maintain support
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France and its five Sahel partners in Western Africa agreed Monday to step up their military cooperation to combat the jihadist insurgency threatening the region, agreeing to place their forces under one umbrella, known as the Coalition for the Sahel.
In a joint statement following talks in the French city of Pau, the leaders of France, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania said they would concentrate their efforts on battling the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
The six leaders also said they hoped the United States would maintain its "crucial support" in combating the Islamist extremists, after a top US general confirmed Monday that the Pentagon was weighing a troop reduction in Africa.
Hosting the summit, President Emmanuel Macron said France would commit an extra 220 soldiers to the anti-jihadist fight, after agreeing to create a joint command structure with regional states.
"We have no choice. We need results," the French president told a press conference after the summit.
In their statement, Macron's West African counterparts "expressed their desire for France's continued engagement in the Sahel, and urged a greater international presence at their side."
Macron had insisted the Sahel leaders use the occasion to express public support for France's military presence – by far the largest foreign contribution to the fight against African jihadists aligned to al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
Visiting the region last month, Macron complained of a lack of "clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings" on the ground.
France already has 4,500 soldiers stationed in the Europe-sized region as part of Operation Barkhane, supporting poorly-equipped, impoverished local armies that in 2017 launched a joint anti-jihadist G5 Sahel force.
Despite the French presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force dubbed MINUSMA in Mali, the conflict that erupted in the north of that country in 2012 has since spread to its neighbours, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.
Jihadist fighters have recently stepped up their campaign against military and civilian targets, and earlier this month, UN chief Antonio Guterres warned that "terrorist groups are gaining ground".
The Pau meeting was postponed from December after a jihadist attack claimed the lives of 71 Niger soldiers. And last Thursday another attack by jihadists left 89 Niger soldiers dead.
Earlier on Monday, Macron was joined by Mali's Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Burkina Faso's Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou, Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Chad's Idriss Deby in observing a minute of silence for seven soldiers from Pau who died in action in Mali – among 13 French troops killed in a helicopter crash while hunting jihadists last November.
Paris planned to use the summit to repeat its call on other Western nations to help step up the fight.
But in a worrying sign for Paris, Washington’s top military commander said the United States planned to reduce its military presence in Africa.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said resources "could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental US or shifted to" the Pacific.
Milley said no decisions had been made yet and insisted Washington was not pulling out of Africa completely.
"We're developing options for the secretary to consider, and we are developing those options in coordination with our allies and partners," Milley said, adding that "economy of forces does not mean zero”.
Washington has some 7,000 special forces on rotation in Africa carrying out joint operations with national forces against jihadists, particularly in Somalia.
Another 2,000 soldiers conduct training missions in some 40 African countries and take part in cooperative operations, in particular with France's Operation Barkhane in Mali, to which they provide mainly logistical assistance.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)