June 30, 2020 / 12:16 PM / a month ago

Sahel remains fragile despite battle gains against militants

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - French and West African troops have made gains against Islamist groups in the Sahel but the situation remains fragile with persistent attacks by the militants, French and Burkina Faso officials said ahead of a summit on Tuesday.

A French soldier leaves with his backpack in Gao, Mali, August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

Political instability is also a source of concern as leaders of the group of five Sahel states meet French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in Nouakchott and are joined by other EU leaders via video.

The so-called G-5 Sahel nations include Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

The summit will assess recent gains and plan next steps after the countries agreed to bring their forces under one command structure six months ago.

“The aim is to bring more international partners into a military capacity such as through the Takouba (special forces) task force by the end of 2020-2021 and an African Union force,” a French official said.

The joint forces, led by France’s 5,100 troops, have so far targeted Islamic State in the Greater Sahara as a priority, concentrating military efforts on the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali known as Liptako-Gourma, an Islamist stronghold.

“We are seeing a weakening of terrorist forces and reduction of attacks against Sahel forces even if the groups are still carrying out operations,” a French military official said, adding that hundreds of militants had been killed this year.

“This all remains fragile.”

A major success has been the killing of al Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel.

Militants have also pushed further south towards coastal countries such as Ivory Coast.

Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kabore said the summit’s context was “marked by the persistence of terrorist attacks.”

In a report on June 24, the U.S. State Department said attacks in the region had increased 250 percent since 2018.

“Partner countries remain strong willed against terrorism but lack the means to contain or degrade the threat on a sustained basis,” it said.

The multinational Takouba task force is an expanded group of special forces which would target militants and help train national special forces.

It is expected to start operations in the summer with about 100 Estonians and French personnel. Some 60 Czechs will join by end of year and 150 Swedes in 2021.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte could confirm Italian interest in the task force during the summit.

The United States mostly provides military support and intelligence.

Reporting by Kissimou Diagana in Nouakchott and Thiam Ndiaga in Ouagadougou and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Angus MacSwan; Writing by Bate Felix

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