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Sahel

France eyes victory in Sahel jihad fight as international coalition launched

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) visit the troops of France's Barkhane operation in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017
FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron (C) and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (L) visit the troops of France's Barkhane operation in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017 REUTERS - POOL New
3 min

France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to combat extremism in the Sahel region, with sources saying the increased cooperation would help secure a military victory despite rising jihadi violence.

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The coalition, first announced at the Pau summit in January in the wake of attacks killing over 200 soldiers, was ratified during virtual meetings of more than 40 defence and foreign ministers.

It aims to strengthen the capacities of African armies and their coordination with French and international forces, with action concentrated on the so-called "three borders" area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

“We express our determination to work for the security and development of the Sahel by supporting the efforts of the G5,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a tweet Friday.

The new structure brings the so-called G5 Sahel states of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, plus France's 5,000-strong force and any future troops under a single command.

Multilateral approach

Countries that have signed up include Canada, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose role will be to provide support to regional armies and financial aid.

“This is a good example of the new multilateralism that the world needs today,” Le Drian said.

Paris has long sought more support  from other European countries and cooperation between Sahel states. 

The former colonial power has deployed thousands of soldiers in the arid region south of the Sahara desert since 2013. But it has so far been unable to stifle violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

"The seriousness of the crisis in the Sahel, the urgent need to act and the scale of the needs require a stronger, more inclusive response," according to the foreign ministry's website.

Border attack

An attack Thursday on Côte d'Ivoire's border with Burkina Faso was a poignant reminder of the gravity of the crisis and the difficult task facing the coalition in securing peace.

The attack by suspected jihadists killed around 10 people and was the first assault by Islamist extremists on Ivorian soil since March 2016, when a raid on the southeastern beach resort of Grand-Bassam left 19 people dead.

Despite this latest setback, Paris and its partners want to put their woes behind them.

"Today in the Sahel, victory is possible. And it is the perception that is taking hold among our partners," a source at the Elysée told reporters.

Last week, France and Sahel forces killed Al-Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel, the historic head of jihad in the Maghreb and a mentor of several Sahelian jihadist groups.

Rights abuses

However, such gains have been overshadowed by allegations of extrajudicial killings of civilians by national armies.

Soldiers in Mali are suspected of killing 43 people in two villages last week.

“If there are exactions against civilians, you cannot expect their collaboration,” Drissa Traore, a Malian human rights activist, told a news conference on Thursday. 

Mali’s Foreign Minister Tiébilé Dramé said recent allegations would go to tribunals, while Le Drian urged accountability.

“The return of national forces (...) must take place in an atmosphere of trust," he insisted. 

"As allegations of abuses continue to grow, it is therefore crucial to fight firmly against any form of impunity".

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