French, Spanish and African leaders meet to combat extremism

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — 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.

This will also be Sanchez’ first trip abroad since a strict lockdown was adopted in Spain in mid-March to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus.

The plane carrying the Spanish delegation is also transporting 10 medical ventilators and medicines to help Mauritania fight the pandemic. A medical team is also traveling on the plane and will be staying in Mauritania to provide assistance in dealing with the COVID-19 disease.

As COVID-19 has led to the cancellation of many meetings worldwide, the decision by Macron and Sanchez to travel to Mauritania shows how seriously they view the Sahel’s precarious security situation.

Recurrent jihadist attacks and inter-communal violence killed at least 4,000 people in 2019 in the Sahel, five times more than in 2016, according to the United Nations.

In Burkina Faso, the threat has grown with fighting spreading from the country’s north to the east and southwest regions. Areas that were once accessible are cut off. Djibo town in the Sahel has been under siege by jihadists for weeks, preventing aid from reaching civilians, according to workers for humanitarian groups and locals in the area.

There’s also been a rise in extrajudicial killings and revenge attacks by the army and local defense groups, targeting people allegedly supporting the jihadists, according to Human Rights Watch. The jihadists have also increased attacks on volunteer fighters helping the military.

Burkina Faso’s army, which was already ill-equipped and struggling to stem the violence, has been hampered by the coronavirus. While it’s continued basic operations in the north and along the border with Mali and Niger, the military has no personal protective gear or other preventive supplies and few trained medical staff, according to internal foreign embassy cables seen by the AP. The “vast majority” of the military remain in their barracks, as a protection measure against the virus, said the report.

Despite gains along the border region, analysts say there’s been no progress in terms of addressing the issues driving the conflict.

“The progress has been mixed at best. The French had some tactical victories along the border, but not much has been done by local or international military to create long lasting stability or warrant any kind 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 U.S. has yet to make a decision on whether it will scale back military presence in the area.


AP writers Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.

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