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France and Sahel leaders review anti-jihad campaign

Nouakchott (AFP) – Leaders from five West African countries and their ally France Tuesday took stock of a new strategy to fight jihadist insurgents in the Sahel and pledged to build on the successes achieved.

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 pressure, losing a key leader to a French raid and fighting internally, say security sources.

Wearing a mask as he arrived for his first trip outside Europe since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, French President Emmanuel Macron said the summit sought to “consolidate the gains”.

The allies have notched up “real successes over the past six months, neutralising feared leaders,” he said, praising the “upscaling of intervention” by Sahel armies.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani said there had been “significant progress” in the fight against jihadists but added they were “insufficient in the face of the mounting challanges that we have to meet.

“Violent extremisim in all its forms continues to hit several zones… and is expanding in a worrying manner,” he said.

Macron 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 later overtaken by the jihadists.

Despite thousands of UN and French troops, the conflict spread to central Mali, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states farther 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.

– ‘Three-border’ region –

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 were then to join the talks by video link.

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

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 Islamic State 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.

– Troubled region –

Despite this, problems in the Sahel run deep.

Local armies are poorly equipped and under-funded, 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.

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