France's Macron due in Mali to back Sahel anti-jihad force

by Serge Daniel with Laurence Benhamou
France's Macron due in Mali to back Sahel anti-jihad force

Bamako (AFP) - President Emmanuel Macron is due in Mali on Sunday to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force, as France beefs up its counter-terror operations in the area.

The so-called "G5 Sahel" countries just south of the Sahara -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- have pledged to fight jihadists on their own soil, as instability and Islamist attacks rise.

With its base in Sevare, central Mali, the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force aims to bolster the 12,000 UN peacekeepers and France's own 4,000-strong military operation known as Barkhane operating in the region.

Macron will attend a summit on July 2 with leaders of the African nations involved, "marking a new step" as the force is formally launched, a source in the French presidency told AFP.

Operations across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, all hit frequently by attacks, would be coordinated with French troops, the source said, while help would be given to set up command centres.

The new force will support national armies trying to catch jihadists across porous frontiers.

Macron visited Gao in northern Mali in May, his first foreign visit as president outside Europe, and said French troops would remain "until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region".

France launched an intervention to chase out jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013.

That mission evolved into the current Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel.

- International support? -

Macron is hoping that the 50 million euros ($57.2 million) the European Union has pledged to the Sahel force will be supplemented by extra support from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States, which already has a drone base in Niger.

The French president will specify the final details of his nation's support on Sunday, but the focus is expected to be on equipment.

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution that welcomes the G5 Sahel deployment but does not grant it UN authorisation, and France was forced to drop a request for a special UN report on financing for the force.

The UN peacekeeping mission is due to deploy its own rapid intervention force composed of Senegalese troops in Mopti, the same region the G5 Sahel force will be based.

Sources in the French presidency told AFP it wants the Sahel force to be active on the ground by autumn, before looking for wider sources of funding by the end of the year or in early 2018.

The question of funding is sensitive as Chad's leader Idriss Deby has said that for budgetary reasons his troops cannot serve simultaneously at such high numbers in the UN peacekeeping mission and also in the new force.

Deby and Macron are due to meet on the margins of the Bamako summit, according the French presidency, as Chad's military is widely viewed as the strongest of the five Sahel nations.

- 'Security traffic jam' -

African Union President Alpha Conde underlined Wednesday that the continent must "take responsibility for the fight against terrorism," echoing the views of Macron's foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

However, cooperation remains key.

The G5 Sahel force's top commander, Malian general Didier Dacko, said that at first each country's contingent would operate on its own soil, gradually becoming more focused on mutual borders.

There would be "close collaboration with Barkhane forces and the UN mission," Dacko told AFP.

Macron was keen on his last visit to Mali to promote economic development rather than military might, with hopes that improving the situation of young people would dim the allure of joining jihadist groups.

Conflict in the area is also driven by land disputes, the lack of a functioning state in some areas and poor governance where it is operative, experts say.

In a letter to the Security Council in April, International Crisis Group researchers warned the benefit of the G5 Sahel force was "unclear" in the context of so many military troops already present in the region.

They said the new deployment "risks aggravating what amounts to a security traffic jam."