Macron in Mali for diplomatic push on Sahel anti-militant force

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) speaking with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after arriving at Modibo Keita international airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017.
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) speaking with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after arriving at Modibo Keita international airport in Bamako, Mali, on July 2, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BAMAKO, MALI July 2, 2017 (AFP) - French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Mali on Sunday (July 2) to boost Western backing for a regional anti-militant force, with France urging greater support for the Sahel region amid mounting insecurity.

The so-called G5 Sahel countries south of the Sahara - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger - have pledged to fight militants on their own soil with instability and Islamist attacks on the rise.

Macron is joining these nations' heads of state in Bamako for a special summit where France's backing for the force will be announced, with a likely focus on providing equipment.

Based in Sevare, central Mali, the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force aims to bolster 12,000 UN peacekeepers and France's own 4,000-member Operation Barkhane, which is operating in the region.

Macron is also looking to extra backing from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States - which already has a drone base in Niger - beyond a pledge of 50 million euros (S$78.6 million) made by the European Union.

Serge Michailof, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS institute, described the EU contribution as "a joke" given the EU's "very deep pockets" and the poverty of the Sahel countries.

 

"This force is going to cost US$300-400 million at the very least," he told AFP.

Chadian President Idriss Deby has said his country cannot afford to mobilise large numbers of troops simultaneously for the UN peacekeeping mission and also in the new force.

Deby and Macron are due to meet on the margins of the Bamako summit to discuss the financial issue, according to the French presidency. Chad's military is widely viewed as the strongest of the five Sahel nations.

Macron visited Gao in northern Mali in May, his first foreign visit as president outside Europe, and promised French troops would remain "until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region".

France intervened to chase out militants linked to Al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013.

That mission evolved into the current Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel.

The new Sahel force will support national armies trying to catch militants across porous frontiers, and will work closely with Barkhane.

Operations across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, all hit with frequent militant attacks, will be co-ordinated with French troops, a source in the French presidency told AFP earlier this week, while help would be given to set up command centres.