France, West Africa step up counterterrorism efforts

PARIS (AP) — France and West African leaders agreed on Tuesday to step up the fight against Islamic extremists in the Sahel by maintaining a strong French military presence, deploying a new Chadian battalion and gradually building up a European task force.

In the final statement of a two-day summit held in N’Djamena, Chad, the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania hailed the progress made over the past year that made the implementation of a clear military strategy possible.

French President Emmanuel Macron, European officials and the heads of international organizations also attended the summit via videoconference.

Speaking from Paris, Macron said he would maintain the number of French troops operating in the region at their current level at least until summer. The remark is an apparent reversal from previous statements Marcon made in which he suggested that he favored a gradual reduction of troop levels.

“I think that precipitating a French withdrawal or willing to massively withdraw soldiers —which is an option I studied— would be a mistake,” he said in a press conference. “This is the result of a discussion I had with each (Sahelian) leader.”

France has about 5,100 troops deployed in the five West African countries, making it the country’s largest military operation abroad.

“We must not release pressure on terrorist groups,” Macron said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Macron said military operations should stay focused on the region bordering Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso – the epicenter of the fight against jihadist groups. He welcomed the deployment of a Chadian battalion of 1,200 men in that zone over the next few days.

The military will also this year “try to cut off the head” of al-Qaida-linked groups known as JNIM and the Macina Liberation Front, he said.

The leaders also pushed for an increasing role of the Takuba task force, a military group composed of European special forces. Macron said the task force should ultimately number 2,000 troops, but didn’t disclose when it would reach that strength. The task force is currently composed of soldiers from France, the Czech Republic and Estonia and will be augmented by troops from Sweden and Italy in the coming months.

According to Macron, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered summit participants the “first signal of the renewed commitment” of the new U.S. administration to maintain troops and military assets in the region.

The leaders also vowed to strengthen a regional force known as the G5 Sahel force that was launched in 2017 and is made up of troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania whose soldiers are operating in cooperation with French troops. European and African officials called for the long-term international financing of force which Macron said needs 40 million euros ($48.5 million) per year to stay operational.

French troops have been present the Sahel region since 2013, when they intervened in Mali to expel Islamic extremist rebels from power.

“France is not involved in ethnic or communitarian wars. No. Our presence on site has been requested by the states, it is in support of the sovereignty of these states and we are fighting against one common enemy… Islamist terrorism,” Macron said.

The leaders also agreed that on top of military operations, efforts are needed to restore state mechanisms in the most vulnerable areas to support civilians and boost regional development.

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