Africa, Europe seek to boost Sahel anti-terror force

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France's Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday hosted a group of African and European leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, to drum up support for a new counter-terrorism force in the terror-plagued Sahel.

Two years in the planning, the force brings together troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in a desert region the size of Europe.

Former colonial power France is currently leading counterterrorism operations there through its 4,000-strong Barkhane force, but is keen to share the burden as its military is engaged on various fronts.

The ambitious goal is to have 5,000 local troops operational by mid-2018, wresting back border areas from jihadists including a local Al-Qaeda affiliate.

But Macron -- who has had a busy week of diplomacy after a climate summit on Tuesday -- has expressed frustration at delays, with the first mission only taking place last month in the volatile border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

"It's an initiative that's getting more powerful, but speed is a problem," French Defence Minister Florence Parly told RFI radio.

"We have to go faster," she said. "The objective is to be able to move forward faster on financing and the military structure."

The five Sahel countries are among the poorest in the world, and funding will be high on the agenda as their presidents join Macron at a chateau in Celle-Saint-Cloud outside Paris.

Officials from oil-rich Saudi Arabia -- which may confirm a $100 million (85 million euro) contribution, according to the French presidency -- are notably on the guest list.

UAE officials are also attending along with the Italian and Belgian prime ministers and representatives of the European Union, African Union and United States.

Priority number one is to re-establish law and order in the border zone where several hundred soldiers, backed by French troops, carried out last month's debut mission.

Militants have mounted repeated attacks in recent months, including an assault in Niger on October 4 which killed four US soldiers and another two weeks later in which 21 Niger troops died.

In August, gunmen stormed a restaurant in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou, killing 19 including foreigners.

- Strategic region -

The G5 force is set to work alongside Barkhane troops and the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali -- the most dangerous in the world, having lost 90 lives since 2013.

The International Crisis Group described the G5 force as a European efforts to "bring down the expense of their overseas operations by delegating them partially to their African partners".

"The Sahel is politically and economically strategic, especially for France and Germany, both of which view the region as posing a potential threat to their own security and as a source of migration and terrorism," it added in a report.

Wednesday's talks are the latest effort by Macron to forge an influential role on the world stage, a day after he hosted an international climate summit.

They are designed to lay the groundwork for a summit in February, likely in Brussels, focused on raising funds for the G5 force.

The EU has so far pledged 50 million euros ($59 million) for the force and France another eight million, while each of the African countries is putting forward 10 million euros.

The United States has meanwhile promised to contribute a total $60 million.

But this leaves a serious shortfall, with France hoping to raise at least 250 million euros in the short-term, rising eventually to 400 million euros.

The arid Sahel region has become a magnet for Islamic militants since Libya descended into chaos in 2011.

In 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists overran the north of neighbouring Mali, including the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.

France intervened in 2013 to drive the jihadists back but swathes of central and northern Mali remain wracked by violence, which has spilled across its borders.


© 2017 AFP

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