EU Takes Over Lead Role From France in Sahel Islamist Fight

European forces will take the lead in a military intervention against Islamist insurgents in West Africa within weeks, President Emmanuel Macron said as the former colonial power faces criticism for its role in the region.

A European mission will train local troops and extend its geographical scope, Macron told journalists in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, Tuesday. He spoke after closed-door meetings with leaders of the West African countries worst-hit by Islamist violence -- Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso -- and European partners, including Germany, Italy, and Spain.

“The land we have taken over will not be given up,” Macron said. “Victory is possible in the Sahel.”

France has more than 5,000 troops across the Sahel as part of a counter-terrorism mission -- it first deployed forces in Mali in 2013. After 13 French soldiers were killed on a single mission last year, Macron threatened at a similar summit in January to withdraw troops unless West African leaders dealt with anti-French sentiment and ramped up their own efforts to stop militants gaining ground in the region.

France will not withdraw its troops and will stay active in the region for “as long as Sahelian states ask for it and consider their security and sovereignty to be threatened,” Macron said. Spain will take a leadership role in the Sahel, he said.

The expansion of the militants’ reach is causing increasing concern. Attacks have been taking place further south since groups affiliated to al-Qaeda occupied urban centers in northern Mali in 2012, and violence has already spilled over to several other countries in the region, including Benin, Ghana and Togo.

At the same time, there’s been a rise in reports of civilian abuse by regional West African forces since Macron’s call to action. Since January alone, 270 civilians have been killed in Mali, 123 in Niger and 213 in Burkina Faso, in attacks attributed to government forces, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, an organization tracking violent incidents and attacks.

“Investigations will be carried out,” Macron said. “France, as it has already done, is prepared to support those investigations, which must be completed.”

Tuesday’s announcement comes as other partners boost support for the mission. The U.S. will help fund new equipment, Macron said. The African Union is deploying 3,000 troops, its chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat said in Nouakchott. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who joined via conference call, pledged 120 million euros ($135 million) to support troops in the region.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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