French, Spanish and African leaders meet to combat extremism
By CARLEY PETESCH
DAKAR, Senegal — Leaders from the five countries of West Africa’s Sahel region — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — are meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott on Tuesday to discuss military operations against Islamic extremists in the region, as jihadist attacks mount.
The five African countries, known as the G5, have formed a joint military force that is working with France, which has thousands of troops to battle the extremists in the Sahel, the region south of the Sahara Desert. France first sent troops to the Sahel in 2013 when it helped to push al-Qaida-linked militants from their strongholds in Mali’s north.
But in recent months extremist groups linked to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State become more assertive, pushing further south into Niger and Burkina Faso, increasing attacks and taking control of more territory. France now has 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel to help combat the still growing attacks as part of its Operation Barkhane.
Thousands more soldiers are meant to be deployed as part of the G5 Sahel Joint Force, but this force is has not yet become fully operational due to the lack of funding and equipment.
Upon arrival in the capital, President Macron said he is “glad to be in Nouakchott” for his first trip outside Europe since the beginning of the new coronavirus crisis. He said he came to show “solidarity” toward the African continent both in the fight against the pandemic and in the fight against terrorism.
The French and African military force, however, has made major gains since the last summit in Pau, France, in January, when it was decided to focus on eliminating the growing threat of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara along the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. Tuesday’s summit was called to set new milestones and raise the operational levels of the armies, as the victories remain fragile, said organizers.
There is political instability in Mali and Burkina Faso and the COVID-19 crisis has also substantially affected the already very vulnerable Sahel countries who are hoping for increased financial support as wealthier countries face the same pandemic.
France had backed an appeal for massive international efforts to boost Africa’s response to the virus that led the world richest countries to freeze poor nations’ debt obligations.
The Sahel region “continues to be hit by terror attacks which justify the presence of the French military and other forces at the request of the Sahel countries and by their side,” Macron said Tuesday upon arrival. “We have seen some real success over the past six months in the fight against terrorism.” He listed a better organization of the military forces on the ground, improved intelligence-sharing, and the delivery of military equipment.
Macron also stressed the greater involvement of European countries. “That’s our will to ‘Europeanize’ the fight against terrorism in Sahel,” he said.
Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani met with Macron and Sanchez before an afternoon discussion with other G5 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 will participate in the meeting via video call.