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France to further boost its anti-jihad force in Sahel

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Paris (AFP)

France will further bolster its anti-jihadist force in the Sahel, on top of 220 reinforcement soldiers already sent recently to try to stem a spiral of violence in the region, the country's top general said Wednesday.

Defence chief of staff Francois Lecointre told reporters in Paris he would detail the "profile and composition" of the proposed troop buildup to President Emmanuel Macron in the coming days.

France has a 4,500-member force in the Sahel region, recently reinforced with a further 220 soldiers, to train and assist local forces fighting an increasingly deadly insurgency in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad.

Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than a million displaced, with hundreds of troops killed, including dozens of French soldiers.

Further reinforcements will be accompanied by "additional logistical and intelligence tools," said Lecointre, with efforts concentrated on the Liptako-Gourma region where the Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger borders meet.

"Today in this extremely vast zone, the means at Operation Barkhane's disposal are not sufficient for us to have soldiers deployed 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, using the official name for France's Sahel mission.

A locally raised G5 Sahel force is also focusing its efforts in the three-border area recently targeted by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) group for a number of deadly attacks.

France has been working on creating a new European special forces operation dubbed Takuba, which Lecointre said "will be fully operational by this autumn."

- 'Not there yet' -

"From a tactical point of view, this is what gives us hope that we will reach a tipping point," Lecointre said, while conceding he foresaw a "long engagement."

"I do not think, despite this boost, we will be able to claim victory by year's end," he said.

Macron hosted his counterparts from the five Sahel countries in southwest France earlier this month, when he announced the deployment of the 220 extra troops for the Barkhane operation and urged the United States to keep its own soldiers engaged in the anti-terror fight in Africa.

Lecointre also said the French and Russian armies have been in talks for several months to try to find common ground on some the world's major crises, in a bid to "avoid confrontations that would be unfortunate for them as for us".

Perhaps in the future, "we could envisage the possibility of joint operational preparations," he said, though "we are not there yet."

Macron said last November that it was crucial to seek a rapprochement with Russia, in an interview in which he said NATO was suffering from "brain death," drawing criticism from many of France's allies.

Lecointre on Wednesday singled out the unrest-plagued Central African Republic, where Moscow is training and arming troops seeking to stem violence by armed groups fighting over mineral resources.

He called it a "laboratory to test the goodwill proclaimed by Russia to be a partner in the resolution of crises, and not someone who wants to use these crises for the purposes of destabilisation."

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