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France’s President Emmanuel Macron due in Mali to back Sahel anti-jihad force

Washington: French President Emmanuel Macron is due in Mali on Sunday to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force, as France beefs up its counter- terror operations in the area.

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

Based in Mali, the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force is designed to bolster the 12,000 UN peacekeepers and France’s own 4,000-strong military operation known as Barkhane operating in the region.

Macron will attend a summit on July 2 with the leaders of the African nations involved, “marking a new step” as the force is formally launched, a source in the French presidency said.

Operations across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, all hit with frequent jihadist attacks, would be co-ordinated with French troops, the source said, while help would be given to set up command centres.

The new force will support national armies trying to catch jihadists across porous frontiers.

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

France launched an intervention to chase out jihadists 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.

Macron is hoping that the 50 million euros (USD 57.2 million) the European Union has pledged to the Sahel force will be supplemented by extra support from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States, which already has a drone base in Niger.

The French president will specify the final details of his nation’s support on Sunday, but the focus is expected to be on help with equipment.

The UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution that welcomes the G5 Sahel deployment but does not grant it UN authorisation, and France was forced to drop a request for a special UN report on financing for the force.

Sources in the French presidency told AFP it wants the Sahel force to be active on the ground by autumn, before looking for wider sources of funding by the end of the year or in early 2018.

The question of funding is sensitive as Chad’s leader Idriss Deby has said that for budgetary reasons his troops cannot serve simultaneously at such high numbers in the UN peacekeeping mission and also in the new force.