PAU, France (AP) — French and West African heads of states vowed to boost their military efforts under a joint command in Africa’s Sahel region, which has seen a surge of deadly violence. They also urged the U.S. to maintain its key support in the fight against Islamic extremism.
Leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania on Monday joined French President Emmanuel Macron in discussing security issues at the summit in the southern French city of Pau.
In a joint declaration, they reaffirmed their “determination to fight together against the terrorist groups.”
African leaders said they want France’s military presence on their ground and called for more international support.
They also expressed their gratitude toward the “crucial help” of the United States amid fears it may reduce its troops across the African continent. Macron said such a U.S. move would be “bad news.”
“I hope I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism … is also at stake in this region,” he added.
The White House National Security Council tweeted Monday that “the United States strongly supports African, French, and international efforts in the Sahel to strengthen security and combat terrorism.”
France and the five Sahel countries agreed to concentrate military efforts “immediately” along the porous border separating Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso with a unified military command. Extremist fighters move about the area with little challenge.
Macron said the priority is to combat the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, an IS group affiliate.
“To reach this goal, we are changing the method by implementing a military coalition with a joint command” of French and African forces, he added.
Macron said the new military structure will improve intelligence sharing and allow troops to be more responsive on the ground.
A similar summit will be held in June in Mauritania to asses the results.
The summit comes as Niger said the death toll from an attack by Islamic extremists last week on its military rose to at least 89, making it the most deadly attack of its kind in years in the country.
Macron seeks to counter anti-French sentiment that has bubbled up amid frustration over the extremist attacks that killed thousands of people last year alone.
France, which once colonized much of West Africa, has some 4,500 troops in the sprawling Sahel region and has been accused by some residents of failing to stabilize it. Some in Mali, which has struggled for close to a decade with extremism, have protested the French presence.
Some 220 additional troops will reinforce the French force, Macron announced.
Macron denounced as “disgraceful” criticism of French military involvement. “Who fell for the security of Malian, Nigerien, Burkinabe people? French soldiers,” he said.
He added: “The French military is there for the (region’s) security and stability. I don’t have any other interest.”
Macron called the summit with West African leaders following a helicopter collision during a combat operationin November that killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic extremists in Mali near the Niger border. It was France’s worst military loss in nearly four decades.
The six heads of state attended a ceremony Monday at the military base of Pau, where seven French soldiers who died were based.
Initially scheduled for December, the summit was postponed after a Dec. 11 attack by Islamic extremists that killed at least 71 soldiers in Niger, the deadliest such assault against Nigerien troops.
The French military operation, France’s largest overseas mission, enjoys broad support at home. France intervened in Mali in 2013 after extremists seized control of major towns in the north and implemented a harsh version of Islamic law. The fighters were expelled but have since regrouped.
U.N. envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, last week said the attacks have increased five-fold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, with over 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 compared with an estimated 770 deaths in 2016, Chambas said.