West Africa anti-terror force tops summit agenda

Dakar (AFP) - West Africa should "think harder" about developing a new anti-terror force, a top regional official said Saturday, as Niger announced the latest deaths among its troops battling Boko Haram jihadists.

West Africa has suffered terror attacks on nations previously untouched by jihadists in the last year, as well as confronting an Islamist insurgency that began in northeast Nigeria but spread to several neighbouring countries.

That meant greater intelligence sharing and military co-operation was required, said the incoming head of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) commission, which implements policy decisions agreed by its 15 members.

"The multiplication of terrorist hotbeds in our region compels us to share information on their activities, to communicate, co-ordinate and harmonise our efforts," said Benin's Marcel Alain de Souza at an ECOWAS summit in Dakar.

"This naturally makes us think harder about the creation of a regional intervention force against terrorism," he added, according to comments released by Senegal's state news agency.

He made the announcement after 32 troops were killed in a clash with Boko Haram fighters on Niger's border with Nigeria, one of deadliest tolls inflicted by the jihadists.

A multinational force from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon already exists and is due to launch a major offensive on Boko Haram around Lake Chad.

But Boko Haram's seven-year insurgency has left at least 20,000 people dead in Nigeria and made more than 2.6 million homeless, leading to calls for more support within the region.

Senegal's President Macky Sall, who currently holds the rotating chairman position in ECOWAS, said Muslim-majority states such as his own had nothing in common with Boko Haram, describing terrorism as an ongoing "source of concern."

The summit was also due to choose a new chairman following Sall's one-year stewardship, with all bets on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for what is expected to be her final year as Liberia's president.

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh did not appear, after months of harsh words for hosts Senegal due to a border dispute.

There was also a palpable nervousness at the regional gathering with the news that Guinea Bissau's deposed prime minister might attempt to make an appearance along with his recently appointed replacement.

Although premier Baciro Dja appeared alone, a group of around 40 protesters appeared to denounce his presence, which is viewed as unconstitutional by some lawmakers in his own PAIGC party as he was named by the president.

"We are here to show we don't agree with the president's decision," said Badile Domingos Sami, a youth leader of the faction-ridden PAIGC.

Sall called on Guinea Bissau to "preserve the democratic achievements" of the country, which has been plagued by coups and instability since its independence from Portugal.