France to continue anti-jihadist mission in Sahel in 2018
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President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Niger late Friday for a morale-boosting visit to France's Barkhane anti-jihadist force and told troops the fight against extremists in the region would continue in 2018.
Former colonial power France has been leading regional counterterrorism efforts in West Africa's Sahel region, but is keen to spread the burden as its military is engaged on various fronts.
Macron was welcomed by his Niger counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou.
The French leader then had a "Christmas dinner" with some members of the 4,000-strong Barkhane force. The meal was prepared by a chef from the Elysee.
"I am proud of you, France is proud of you ... France mourns its dead, takes care of its injured (and) is proud of its children who are fighting to protect it," he said.
With 500 men, Mirage 2000 fighter jets and drones, the French base in the Niger capital Niamey is the air hub for the Barkhane force.
Macron said the Barkhane mission would continue in 2018 with the "aim of winning clear and important victories against the enemy".
"I trust you," to carry out the mission in the Sahel, which "is a priority" because "this is where our security, the future of part of the African continent is played out," he said.
"We must not leave the Sahel to terrorist organisations ... (we must not) give up the slightest bit of territory to them," said Macron, who was accompanied by Defence Minister Florence Parly.
The Barkhane mission had stopped jihadist groups in various areas and they were "no longer capable of undermining a state", he said.
The mission would however continue against scattered groups of jihadists, the president added.
Marcon was due to discuss the issue Saturday with President Issoufou.He would also announce "concrete" development projects, especially for educating girls, according to the presidential palace.
"The root of the problem is not terrorism, it's underdevelopment, trafficking and the impact of population growth -- that's what we need to solve," said Colonel Regis Colcombel, deputy commander of Barkhane.