France and Sahel leaders discuss insurgency as attacks increase

France and Sahel leaders discuss insurgency as attacks increase
France and Sahel leaders discuss insurgency as attacks increase

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Leaders from five West African countries and their ally France meet on Tuesday to discuss their troubled efforts to stem a militant offensive unfolding in the Sahel.

Meeting in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, presidents will take stock nearly six months after rebooting their campaign in Pau, southwestern France.

Since then, Islamist insurgents have continued to carry out almost daily attacks, despite losing a key leader. Two rebel groups are also said to be at odds.

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the summit in January to secure a public commitment from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger at a time of deepening concern in France after it lost 13 troops in a helicopter crash.

The insurgency kicked off in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by Touareg separatists that was later overtaken by the militants.

Despite thousands of UN and French troops, the conflict spread to central Mali, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states farther south.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and the economies of the three countries, already among the poorest in the world, have been grievously damaged.

Mr Macron will make a one-day round trip to Mauritania for the summit.

The talks are only expected to last a few hours, but they will also mark the first time that Sahel allies have gathered since the coronavirus pandemic crimped meetings in person.

One priority will be to assess affairs in the "three-border region," a hotspot of Islamist insurgency, where the frontiers of Burkina, Niger and Mali converge.

France, which added 500 troops to its Sahel mission after Pau, is co-leading the campaign in this region, targeting an ISIS-affiliated group led by Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.

Earlier this month, French forces in northern Mali, helped by a US drone, killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim)

And in a new development, militants respectively linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS have clashed several times since the start of the year in Mali and Burkina Faso, after long steering clear of one another, according to security experts.

Despite this, problems in the Sahel run deep.

Local armies are poorly equipped and under-funded, rights groups say troops are to blame for hundreds of killings and other abuses of civilians, and in some areas the presence of government has evaporated.

Staunch French ally Chad has yet to fulfil a promise to send troops to the three-border region, and a much-trumpeted initiative to create a joint 5,000-man G5 Sahel force is making poor progress.

In Mali, meanwhile, anger at insecurity has fuelled discontent over coronavirus restrictions and the outcome of elections, creating a political crisis for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Both Burkina Faso and Niger are due to hold presidential elections by the year's end, fuelling concerns about the outcome.

Updated: June 30, 2020 11:50 AM

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