* Arid Sahel region a breeding ground for Islamist militants
* Regional neighbours seeking to set up multinational force
* Macron backs effort seen by some as exit strategy for
(Adds quotes, details)
By Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO, July 2 (Reuters) – African powers launched a new
multinational military force in the Sahel on Sunday, which
France’s President Emmanuel Macron told a regional summit should
be fully operational by the autumn and some observers see as
forming the basis of an exit strategy for French troops.
Islamist militant groups, some with links to al Qaeda,
seized control of Mali’s desert north in 2012.
While they were driven back a year later by a French-led
military intervention, they continue to carry out attacks
against on U.N. peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian
targets in violence that has spilled across Mali’s borders.
Macron said France and African powers must work together to
“eradicate terrorists, thugs and murderers” in the Sahel.
During Sunday’s summit, leaders of the G5 Sahel bloc – Mali,
Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – formally established
the new force, which will operate in coordination with French
troops and MINUSMA, Mali’s struggling U.N. peacekeeping mission.
Since taking office in May, Macron has thrown Paris’s weight
behind the plan, including through a U.N. resolution voicing
support for the force.
“Every day we must combat terrorists, thugs, murderers whose
names and faces we must forget, but whom we must steadfastly and
with determination eradicate together,” said Macron at the
summit in Mali’s capital Bamako.
He said the force, which is expected to consist of around
5,000 troops, needed to be fully operational by this autumn.
The countries of the G5 Sahel bloc began floating the idea
of a regional force as early as 2015, but the plan has gained
momentum in recent months with Macron’s backing.
“There is urgency because those we’re facing aren’t going to
wait,” said Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. “It’s also
clear that France alone must not continue to bear the burden of
this fight against terrorism.”
With its military headquarters in the northern Mali town of
Sevare, the G5 Sahel force will focus on three border zones –
one along the frontier between Niger and Mali, another between
Mali and Mauritania, and a third straddling the borders between
Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.
Paris considers the Sahel a breeding ground for militants
and traffickers who pose a threat to Europe. And late on
Saturday, JNIM, an al Qaeda-linked group, released a video
showing six Western hostages abducted in the region in recent
years, among them French citizen Sophie Pétronin.
Macron said France would “put all our energy towards
eradicating” those responsible for her kidnapping.
While Sunday’s summit marked a step forward in the plan to
set up the G5 Sahel force, it still faces a number of obstacles.
The European Union has pledged around 50 million euros ($57
million) for the operations, and Macron said France would
contribute around 8 million euros by the end of the year.
And while Keita said each of the G5 Sahel members had
promised to contribute 10 million euros for the force, he said
it required a total budget of 423 million euros.
The G5 Sahel nations – among the world’s poorest – are
Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger have deployed around 4,100
soldiers within MINUSMA. Niger and Chad also contribute troops
to a similar regional force fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram
President Idriss Deby of Chad, which possesses the region’s
most capable military, has voiced reluctance to further commit
his forces unless they receive more international support.
($1 = 0.8756 euros)
(Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by
Mark Potter and David Evans)