France seeks ways to boost anti-jihadi force in Africa

French president Emmanuel Macron. (Markus Schreiber, AP)
French president Emmanuel Macron. (Markus Schreiber, AP)

La Celle-Saint-Cloud - Presidents, princes and diplomats were meeting outside Paris on Wednesday to breathe life into a young African military force that aims to counter the growing jihadi threat in the Sahel region but needs a huge boost to fulfill its mission.

Nearly five years after France intervened to rout Islamist extremists in northern Mali, then controlled by an al-Qaeda affiliate, the threat has spread to neighboring countries in the volatile region. It has also spawned new jihadi groups, including one that claims affiliation with the Islamic State group, recently defeated in Iraq and nearly pummeled in Syria.

French President Emmanuel Macron convened leaders of the five-nation force, known as G5 Sahel, and delegations representing Europe, the African Union and international organizations at a chateau west of Paris. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those attending, as well as envoys from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

Macron opened the conference with a closed-door meeting with the leaders of the Sahel nations ahead of a larger gathering.

Organised crime and human trafficking 

The G5 Sahel force was launched in Bamako, Mali on July 2 with Macron present. It aims to tackle the jihadi menace, organised crime and human trafficking. Macron has taken the lead on convincing partners to help make the force viable, because the fate of the Sahel region impacts Europe.

"Terrorists, thugs and assassins" must be eradicated, he said in Bamako.

Made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad, the fledgling force is to grow to a 5 000-strong army by March but is still in need of soldiers, training, operational autonomy and funding.

While funding is not the leading topic, Saudi Arabia was expected to announce a hefty contribution, an official in the French president's office said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. A special funding conference is to be held in February.

The budget to launch the force is 250 million euros ($293 million), with 400 million euros ($470 million) needed down the road, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said on RFI radio.

In recent months, security forces and the UN peacekeeping mission have been prime jihadi targets in the Sahel.

Test operation 

Four UN peacekeepers and a Malian soldier were killed in two attacks in Mali less than a month ago. In Niger, 13 soldiers died in October, weeks after four US troops and four Niger soldiers were killed in a remote corner of Niger. Burkina Faso also saw August attack that killed 18 at a restaurant in its capital of Ouagadougou.

The G5 Sahel force will at first concentrate on the border regions shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. A test operation in November was carried out by 350 forces from Burkina Faso, 200 from Niger and 200 from Mali, according to the French Defense Ministry.

French officials estimate the extremists to number no more than 1 000 — compared to several thousand in northern Mali in 2013, when France intervened. But the numbers are deceptive, failing to reflect the danger and difficulty of hunting down an enemy in a vast region the size of Europe covered with barely navigable rock and desert terrain.

France's nearly 4 000-strong Barkhane force, launched in 2014, scouts out armed extremists and gives critical air, intelligence and other support to the G5 Sahel force. A 12 000-strong UN peacekeeping mission is also in Mali to try to stabilize the volatile country.

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