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French president urges multi-national force in Sahel to start operations within weeks

Macron said he hoped the West African regional force would be operational within weeks. The G5 Sahel bloc set up the multi-national force which will work with French and UN missions to combat militants and criminals.

Speaking in Mali after a summit of presidents from Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger - the G5 Sahel bloc - French President Emmanuel Macron pledged combat support and money for the West African force. Regional leaders admitted full funding has not yet been fully secured.

"Our challenge is to get the command up and running, not just on the financing but also on operations," Macron said on Sunday. "I hope it’s a matter of weeks, because we need rapid results to be credible." France is to offer "advice, material and combat," Macron said.

The coalition force is to tackle jihadist bombings, shootings and kidnappings in the Sahel region - between the Sahara to the north and the Sudan region towards the east.

Gipfeltreffen in Bamako Mali (Reuters/L. Gnago)

Macron at the summit with G5 Sahel leaders in Bamako, Mali

Macron praised the initiative on Sunday as "a dynamic, a groundswell which France is proud to back."

He added, "it will be up to you and your armed forces to demonstrate that the G5 can be effective, while respecting humanitarian conventions. The results have to be there to convince your partners."

"We cannot hide behind words, and must take actions," Macron said as he expressed the hope the force would be operational within weeks. "Security efforts without political engagement are not durable," Macron said. "You must redouble your efforts, and we will accompany you."

The G5 Sahel is to be a 5,000-strong force based in central Mali to bolster the United Nation's 12,000-strong peacekeeping force and France's own 4,000-member Operation Barkhane force. 

The French president is also seeking additional support from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States beyond a 50 million euro ($57 million) pledge from the European Union, which is being described as "the start of a long-term commitment." Germany has also increased its military operations in West Africa.

France is to provide 70 tactical vehicles and 8 million euros before the end of the year, Macron said. He also said France would provide 200 million euros in development assistance to the Sahel over the next five years.

Mission needs money

Serge Michailof, a researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), criticized the EU contribution as "a joke" given what he called the bloc's "very deep pockets" and the poverty of the Sahel countries.

"This force is going to cost $300-400 million (262-350 million euros) at the very least," he said. Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop put the figure at $450 million.

Chadian President Idriss Deby said his country needed more financial support if it was to mobilize large numbers of troops for both the G5 force and the UN peacekeeper mission.  Chad's military is considered the strongest among the Sahel forces.

Gipfeltreffen in Bamako Mali (Reuters/C. Archambault)

Macron in discussion with the G5 Sahel leaders in Bamako

Kidnappings

Macron said on Sunday that France would "put all our energy towards eradicating" those responsible for kidnapping French hostage Sophie Petronin in Mali last December.

The al-Qaeda linked JNIM group posted a video online on Saturday purporting to show six western hostages abducted in West Africa's Sahel region in recent years. Petronin was one of the people shown together with elderly Australian surgeon Arthur Kenneth Elliott.

Islamist militant groups, some with links to al-Qaida, seized control of Mali's northern desert region in 2012. That prompted France - a former colonial power in Mali - to send its military into Mali to chase out jihadists linked to al-Qaida who had overtaken key northern cities in 2013.

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

bik/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)

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