President Emmanuel Macron has visited French counterterrorism troops based in Niger, who are combating extremists in the Sahel. He stressed the need for development programs to tackle the root causes of extremism.
A gala dinner for 700 was prepared by the presidential chef from the Elysee Palace in Paris at the base for French troops near Niger's capital, Niamey, on Friday night.
With 500 men, Mirage 2000 fighter jets and drones, the French base is the air hub for the Barkhane force, which operates across five countries and former colonies as a "pillar of counterterrorism in the Sahel region." It has particular focus on extremists in Mali, Chad and Niger.
A fine Christmas dinner with produce brought from France set the scene for Macron to tell the troops that their mission would be continued with the "aim of winning clear and important victories against the enemy."
"I am proud of you, France is proud of you.... France mourns its dead, takes care of its injured (and) is proud of its children who are fighting to protect it," he said. Macron was accompanied by the chief of staff of the armed forces, General Francois Lecointre, who replaced General Pierre de Villiers after Villiers had abruptly resigned earlier in the year over cuts in the military budget.
Security for the future
"I trust you," Macron told the troops, particularly for the mission in the Sahel, which he called "a priority" because "this is where our security is played out, the future for part of the African continent."
"We must not leave the Sahel to terrorist organizations," Macron added. "We cannot cede to them the slightest piece of territory."
He said the ongoing Barkhane mission had halted jihadis on various fronts and the extremists were "no longer capable of undermining a state."
However, he said the mission would continue through 2018 to deal with the scattered and mobile bands of extremists across the desert region.
In a series of statements via Twitter, Macron praised the troops and said there was a need for long-term development in the region in order to tackle the root causes of conflicts.
Education for girls would be a priority for the French development program, according to the presidential office.
"The root cause of the problem is not terrorism. It is underdevelopment, trafficking and the impact of population growth" that need to be resolved, said the deputy commander of Barkhane, Colonel Colcombel.
Germany's Bundeswehr has supported a UN mission in Mali for nearly four years.
jm/sms (AFP, dpa)