July 2, 2017 / 7:22 PM / 2 months ago

French and West African presidents launch Sahel force

(L-R) Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Chad's President Idriss Deby and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou pose during G5 Sahel Summit at the Koulouba Presidential Palace in Bamako, Mali, July 2, 2017.Luc Gnago

BAMAKO (Reuters) - African powers launched a new multinational military force to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel on Sunday, which French President Emmanuel Macron told a regional summit should be fully operational by the autumn despite its current budget shortfall.

Some observers see the initiative of the G5 Sahel bloc - Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad - as forming the basis of an eventual exit strategy for around 4,000 French troops now deployed to the volatile region. But Macron said Paris had no plans to withdraw them.

Islamist militant groups, some with links to al Qaeda, seized control of Mali's desert north in 2012.

Though they were driven back a year later by a French-led military intervention, they continue to carry out attacks against on U.N. peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets in violence that has spilled across Mali's borders.

"Every day we must combat terrorists, thugs, murderers, whose names and faces we must forget, but whom we must steadfastly and with determination eradicate together," Macron said at the summit in Mali's capital Bamako.

During the meeting, leaders of the G5 Sahel countries formally established the new force, which will operate in coordination with French troops and MINUSMA, Mali's struggling U.N. peacekeeping mission.

The countries of the G5 Sahel bloc began floating the idea of a regional force as early as 2015, but since taking office in May, Macron has thrown Paris's weight behind the plan, including through a U.N. resolution last month.

"There is urgency because those we're confronting are not going to wait," said Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. "It's also clear that France alone must not continue to bear the burden of this fight against terrorism."

UNDERFUNDED AND OVERSTRETCHED

On Sunday, Macron said the force, which is expected to consist of around 5,000 troops, needed to be fully operational by this autumn.

But he played down speculation that he was seeking to reduce the burden on France's cross-border Barkhane Operation, saying in a meeting with Mali's French community following the summit that Paris would "remain engaged for as long as it takes".

With its military headquarters in the northern Mali town of Sevare, the G5 Sahel force will focus on border zones - one along the frontier between Niger and Mali, another between Mali and Mauritania, and a third straddling the borders between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

Paris considers the Sahel a breeding ground for militants and traffickers who pose a threat to Europe.

Late on Saturday, JNIM, an al Qaeda-linked group, released a video showing six Western hostages abducted in the region in recent years.

Among them was French citizen Sophie Pétronin, whose kidnappers Macron said France would "put all our energy towards eradicating".

While Sunday's summit marked a step forward in the plan to set up the new force, it still faces a number of obstacles.

The European Union has pledged around 50 million euros ($57 million), and Macron said France would contribute around 8 million euros by the end of the year.

Each of the G5 Sahel members will contribute 10 million euros for the force. But President Keita on Sunday estimated the required total budget at 423 million euros.

The G5 Sahel nations - among the world's poorest - are already overstretched.

Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger have deployed around 4,100 soldiers within MINUSMA. Niger and Chad also contribute troops to a similar regional force fighting Nigeria's Boko Haram militants.

President Idriss Deby of Chad, which possesses the region's most capable military, has voiced reluctance to further commit his forces unless they receive more international support.

Additional reporting by Sophie Louet in Paris; Additional reporting and writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Mark Potter and David Evans

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