France and Sahel leaders tout progress in anti-jihad campaign

French President Emmanuel Macron is greeted by his Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Ould Ghazouani at Nouakchott on June 30, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron is greeted by his Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Ould Ghazouani at Nouakchott on June 30, 2020. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron joined leaders from five West African countries on Tuesday to take stock of a new strategy to intensify the fight against jihadist insurgents in the Sahel.


Meeting in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, the presidents reviewed a campaign that they rebooted in January after a string of reversals.

Since then, the jihadists have continued to carry out almost daily attacks, but they are also under mounting pressure, losing a key leader to a French raid and fighting internally, according to security sources.

The allies have "shifted the dynamic" in the Sahel, Macron told reporters after the talks, adding that "victory is possible thanks to the efforts supplied over the past six months".


Earlier, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani said there had been "significant progress" in the fight against jihadists, though cautioning that the advances were "insufficient in the face of mounting challenges".

He added: "Violent extremisim in all its forms continues to hit several zones... and is expanding in a worrying manner."

France hosted a summit in January to help secure a stronger public commitment from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger at a time of deepening concern in France after it lost 13 troops in a helicopter crash.

The insurgency kicked off in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by Tuareg separatists that was overtaken by jihadists. Despite thousands of UN and French troops, the conflict spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states further south. 

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and the economies of the three countries, already among the poorest in the world, have been grievously damaged. 

Macron arrived for a one-day round trip from Europe for the summit, with representatives from the UN, African Union and European Union in attendance. The leaders of Germany, Spain and Italy joined the talks by video link.

The meeting marked the first time that Sahel allies have gathered physically since the start of the coronavirus crisis.

'Three-border region'

One priority was to assess affairs in the "three-border region", a hotspot of jihadism where the frontiers of Burkina, Niger and Mali converge.

France, which added 500 troops to its Sahel mission after the summit in the French town of Pau, is co-leading the campaign in this region, targeting an Islamic State-affiliated group led by Abou Walid al-Sahraoui. 

Earlier this month, French forces in northern Mali, helped by a US drone, killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

And in a new development, jihadists respectively linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group have clashed several times since the start of the year in Mali and Burkina Faso, after long steering clear of one another, according to security experts.

Despite this, problems in the Sahel run deep.

Local armies are poorly equipped and underfunded, rights groups say troops are to blame for hundreds of killings and other abuses of civilians, and in some areas the presence of government has evaporated.

Staunch French ally Chad has yet to fulfil a promise to send troops to the three-border region, and a much-trumpeted initiative to create a joint 5,000-man G5 Sahel force is making poor progress.

In Mali, anger at insecurity has fuelled discontent over coronavirus restrictions and the outcome of elections, creating a political crisis for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. 

Both Burkina and Niger are due to hold presidential elections by year's end, fuelling concerns about the outcome.

Macron stressed the need "to do more in terms of the return of the state", particularly "in Mali, in Burkina, in a context that we know is very complex".

In response to lobbying from France, a group of European special forces called Takuba, numbering 310 men, is mustering to help Malian troops.

And on Monday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the mandate of the 13,000-troop MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali for another year, to June 30, 2021.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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