ABUJA • Boko Haram remains a threat despite "impressive" military gains against it, French President Francois Hollande said yesterday, as regional and Western leaders gathered for talks on the Islamist threat.
"The results (of the counter-insurgency) are impressive" and the rebels had been "diminished and forced to retreat", he told a news conference in Abuja. But he added: "This terrorist group nevertheless remains a threat."
Mr Hollande was speaking after talks with his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari at the presidential villa in the Nigerian capital before regional leaders met to discuss the conflict.
Nearly seven years of violence have left at least 20,000 dead and more than 2.6 million homeless, devastating infrastructure in Nigeria's remote north-east and creating a humanitarian crisis.
France and Nigeria recently signed an agreement on closer military cooperation, including intelligence sharing, and France is keen to help implement a regional solution to the insurgency.
Paris has traditionally concentrated on its former colonies surrounding Nigeria and sees itself as well- placed to help in the region's longer-term economic development.
Discussions at the security summit are expected to focus on the formal deployment of a new regional force comprising troops from Nigeria and its neighbours Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Over the last 15 months, individual armies have largely been acting independently to curb the violence in the face of mounting cross-border attacks, particularly suicide bombings.
The United Nations Security Council has raised concerns about Boko Haram's links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, after reports of Nigerian fighters in lawless Libya.
Boko Haram's shadowy leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to his ISIS counterpart Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year.
United States Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Friday there were reports that Boko Haram fighters were going to Libya, where ISIS has established a large presence, taking advantage of security chaos. "We've seen that Boko Haram's ability to communicate has become more effective. They seem to have benefited from assistance from Daesh," he said, using a derogatory name for ISIS.
There were also reports of material and logistical aid. "So these are all elements that suggest that there are more contacts and more cooperation, and this is again something that we are looking at very carefully because we want to cut it off," Mr Blinken told reporters in Nigeria.
The summit - two years after a first such high-level gathering in Paris - comes as Nigeria's military pushes deep into Boko Haram's Sambisa Forest stronghold after recapturing swathes of territory.
Former military ruler Buhari has vowed to defeat Boko Haram before the end of his first year in office later this month.
More than two million Nigerians have been internally displaced due to the conflict and are living in host communities or camps.
The government of Borno state, the worst-hit by the violence, said the displaced face a "food crisis" and US$5.9 billion (S$8 billion) was needed to rebuild shattered infrastructure.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS