DAKAR, Senegal (AP) – Leaders from the five countries of the West African Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – called on Tuesday to step up counter-terrorism operations supported by the French military that have already achieved success made in spite of increasing jihadist attacks in the region.
The heads of state of the five Sahel countries said that the stability of the sub-Saharan desert region continues to be threatened by persistent attacks, a deteriorating security situation in Libya and the COVID-19 pandemic, and repeated calls for debt cancellation while dealing with the pandemic.
The statements came after meetings between the heads of state on Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, to discuss military operations against Islamic extremists in the region.
The five African countries, known as the G5, have formed a joint force working with France, which has 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel to help fight the ever-growing attacks. France first sent troops to the Sahel in 2013 when it helped expel Al-Qaida-affiliated militants from their strongholds in northern Mali.
But in recent months, extremist groups linked to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State are becoming more assertive, moving further south into Niger and Burkina Faso, increasing attacks and taking control of more territory.
Thousands of soldiers remain to be deployed as part of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, but this force has not yet become fully operational due to the lack of funding and equipment.
“We are all convinced that victory is possible in the Sahel,” Macron said at a news conference with other heads of state.
Macron said his first trip outside Europe since the beginning of the new coronavirus crisis was aimed at showing “solidarity” with the African continent. This was also Sanchez’s first trip abroad since a strict closure was passed in Spain in mid-March to delay the spread of the pandemic.
The French and African forces have made great strides since the last summit in Pau, France in January, when it was decided to focus on eliminating the growing threat from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara along the three-country regions of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali . One of the successes was the murder of the head of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb on 3 June in the Tessalit region.
“France will be there as long as the Sahel states ask for and request it, as they believe that the security of their people is threatened … and that our role is useful,” said Macron. He previously praised the greater involvement of other European countries in the region.
Tuesday’s summit was called to set new milestones and raise the army’s operational levels as victories remain fragile, organizers said. Counter-terrorism operations along the tri-border areas of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali will continue, and the G5 Heads of State also called for more military engagement from the international community. They were grateful for the support of France, the US and the United Nations mission in Mali.
Operation Takuba, which will be a force of European special forces soldiers, would be deployed in the summer of 2020, according to the G5 statement, along with a brigade from Britain to support the Mali UN mission and 3,000 African Union- soldiers.
There is political instability in Mali and Burkina Faso, and the COVID-19 crisis has also had a significant impact on the already fragile Sahel countries, which are hoping for more financial support as wealthier countries face the same pandemic.
The President of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, urged the wealthiest countries to lift the debt obligations of the poor countries. “The debt issue arises even more with the new situation resulting from the pandemic and its consequences. The debt burden is unbearable. ‘
Ghazouani met with Macron and Sanchez for an afternoon discussion with other heads of state, including Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, and Chad’s President Idriss Deby.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte participated in the meeting through a video call.
According to the United Nations, repeated jihadist attacks and inter-municipal violence killed at least 4,000 people in the Sahel in 2019, five times more than in 2016.
In Burkina Faso, the threat has increased with fighting spreading from the northern, eastern and southwestern regions of the country. Areas that were once accessible are closed. Saharan Djibo city has been under siege by jihadists for weeks, preventing aid from reaching civilians, workers of humanitarian groups and local residents in the area said.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are also more extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks by the military and local defense groups, targeting people who would support the jihadists. The jihadists have also carried out more attacks on volunteer fighters who help the military.
On Tuesday, G5 heads of state agreed that “allegations of abuse by elements of the armed forces and security forces will be investigated and, if the facts are proven, exemplary sanctions,” the final statement said.
Already poorly equipped and struggling to curb the violence, Burkina Faso’s army was hampered by the corona virus. While continuing basic operations in the north and along the border with Mali and Niger, the military has no personal protective equipment or other preventative supplies and little trained medical personnel, according to internal foreign embassy cables the AP sees. The “vast majority” of the military remains in their barracks, as a measure of protection against the virus, the report said.
Despite gains in the border area, analysts say no progress has been made in addressing the problems causing the conflict.
“The progress is mixed at best. The French achieved some tactical victories along the border, but local or international military have not done much to create long-term stability or justify any form of victory, “said Flore Berger, a Sahel research analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies.
Strengthening the regional G5 force is also critical at this time, especially as the US has not yet made a decision as to whether to scale down its military presence in the area.
The next summit will take place in 2021 in a Sahel country.
Corbet wrote from Paris. AP writers Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.
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