Africa, Europe seek to boost Sahel anti-terror force

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France's Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday hosted African and European leaders to drum up support and contributions 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.

The five nations are among the world's poorest, and funding was high on the agenda as their presidents joined Macron and other leaders including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel 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 -- were also notably on the guest list.

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

The idea is for the Sahel nations to develop their capacity to defend themselves through the new force, but their militaries are poorly equipped and need training in the new role.

Macron -- who has had a busy week of diplomacy after a climate summit Tuesday -- pushed US President Donald Trump for support when they met in July, and Washington has promised $60 million in aid for the countries.

"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."

US officials were attending Wednesday's talks along with the prime ministers of Italy and Belgium and representatives of the United Arab Emirates, European Union and African Union.

- Ambitious goals -

The International Crisis Group described the G5 force as a European effort 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 published Tuesday.

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

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

The task is daunting, not least because the Islamists enjoy a degree of support in areas where people's experience of the state has often been one of inefficacy or outright abuse of power.

In central Mali, Human Rights Watch noted that many villagers "welcomed Islamist efforts to investigate and punish livestock thieves," while others "expressed anger at Malian army abuses".

The rights group urged the new international force to respect civilians' rights in areas where ordinary people have often borne the brunt of the violence.

Across the region, thousands have died in years of attacks, and tens of thousands have fled their homes.

Troops have also been a frequent target, including an assault in Niger on October 4 which killed four US soldiers and another two weeks later in which 21 Niger troops died.

- 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.

Wednesday's talks are intended to lay the groundwork for a summit in February, likely in Brussels, which will focus specifically 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.

France is hoping to raise at least 250 million euros in the short-term, rising eventually to 400 million euros.

The arid Sahel 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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