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Macron meets with African leaders to boost fight against jihadists in Sahel

Reuters screengrab of Mali forces during training.
Reuters screengrab of Mali forces during training. © REUTERS

French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting counterparts from five Sahel countries on Monday, seeking more backing in the fight against a murderous jihadist uprising even as France's military role is being questioned.

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Recent tensions between France and Sahel governments could make for a tricky exchange at the six-way talks in the southwestern city of Pau, attended also by the heads of the UN, African Union, and EU Council.

Macron insists his counterparts from Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad must 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, the French president complained of a lack of "clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings" on the ground.

"I see opposition movements, groups, who denounce the French presence as a neo-colonial, imperialist," Macron said in Niamey, adding he was loath to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not "clearly wanted".

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".

France 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.

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.

‘Respectful relationship’

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.

They laid a wreath and observed 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.

The presidents then gathered for talks, which Macron said must clarify the "political and strategic framework" of the Sahel military campaign.

Speaking ahead of the summit, Mali's Keita said the talks would “allow us to put on the table all the questions, all the grievances, all the solutions".

But he insisted the G5 leaders would demand a "respectable and respectful relationship" with France. Kabore of Burkina Faso has described Macron's recent insistences as "lacking in tact".

Issifou said the summit would "launch an appeal for international solidarity so that the Sahel and France are not alone in this fight".

US withdrawal?

Paris planned to use the summit to repeat its call on other Western nations to help step up the fight.

Last year, only $300 million of $400 million pledged by the international community in cash and material support to the Sahel was delivered, according to the French presidency.

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)

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