BRUSSELS (Reuters) - International donors pledged half a billion dollars for a multinational military operation in West Africa’s Sahel region on Friday, as Europe seeks to stop migrants and militants reaching its shores.
At a conference of about 50 countries including the United States, Japan and Norway, countries pledged 414 million euros ($509 million) for the G5 Sahel force, made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
“The number of countries who participated today in the conference gives a signal of the importance,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan told reporters.
The European Union, which believes training local forces will allow it to avoid risking the lives of its own combat troops, doubled its contribution to 116 million euros.
The pledges should allow the force, which has had difficulty raising funds, to be fully operational this year.
As violence has spiked, concerns have grown that the region could be a springboard for attacks on the West.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged donors to provide the funds quickly, while African leaders said the money pledged so far would only cover the first year of operations.
President Emmanuel Macron of France, the region’s former colonial power with 4,000 troops in the region, said it would continue its own offensive alongside the G5 Sahel force.
Islamist militants took over northern Mali in 2012 before French forces pushed them back in 2013, alerting Washington and others to the growing threat in the region.
The United States, the largest donor in Mali, has 800 troops in Niger, where four U.S. soldiers died in October, but global awareness of the vast desert region’s importance for security remains low.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy struggled to name the five countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania as he arrived at the conference.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pledges showed the EU’s commitment: “We cannot only start to fight illegal migration in Libya. We have to start in Mali, Niger, Chad. All of Europe is involved,” she said, standing with Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
The G5 Sahel operation, whose command center is in central Mali, is to swell to 5,000 personnel and will also carry out humanitarian and development work.
About 350,000 people traveled through Niger alone in 2017, mostly hoping to reach Europe but some trying to return home, according to the Red Cross.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said many young people in the Sahel felt they had only two options: to die in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe or to die at the hands of militants.
“We have to act resolutely to change the face of the Sahel region or risk seeing this region of the world fall irreversibly into chaos and violence,” he told the conference, after asking leaders and ministers to stand for a moment of silence for two French soldiers killed this week in Mali.
Issoufou said the force would need around 115 million euros a year, and urged the West to take the fight against militants as seriously as it has taken the threat in Iraq and Syria.
Pledges have also come from the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
France is set to spend 1.2 billion euros on development in the region over the next five years, a 40 percent increase over current levels, while other countries are expected to provide more aid for farmers, schools and water projects.
The European Union is investing 8 billion euros in development aid in the region, according to EU data.
($1 = 0.8132 euros)
Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek and Jean-Baptiste Vey; Editing by Kevin Liffey