French, Spanish and African Leaders Meet to Combat Extremism

LEADERS from the five countries of West Africa’s Sahel region — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — on Tuesday called for intensifying counter-terrorism operations supported by the French military that have already seen successes in the recent months despite growing jihadist attacks in the region.

The heads of state from the five Sahel countries said the stability of the region below the Sahara Desert remains challenged by persistent attacks, a deteriorating security situation in Libya and the COVID-19 pandemic, and renewed calls for the cancellation of external debts as they deal with the pandemic.

The statements came after meetings between the heads of states Tuesday with French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott to discuss military operations against Islamic extremists in the region.

The five African countries, known as the G5, have formed a joint military force that is working with France, which has 5,100 soldiers in the Sahel to help combat the still growing attacks. 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.

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.

“We are all convinced that victory is possible in Sahel,” Macron said in a news conference alongside other heads of states.

Macron said his first trip outside Europe since the beginning of the new coronavirus crisis aimed at showing “solidarity” toward the African continent. This was also Sanchez’ first trip abroad since a strict lockdown was adopted in Spain in mid-March to slow down the spread of the pandemic.

The French and African military force 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. Among the successes has been the killing of the head of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb on June 3 in the Tessalit region.

“France will be there as long as its presence is wanted and requested by the Sahel states as they consider their people’s security is threatened … and that our role is useful,” Macron said. He earlier praised the greater involvement of other European countries in the region.

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