EU commits 50 million euros to combat militants in West Africa

DAKAR (Reuters) - The European Union committed 50 million euros ($56 million) on Monday to help the countries of West Africa’s Sahel region set up a multinational force to combat Islamist militant groups.

The vast, arid zone has in recent years become a breeding ground for jihadist groups - some linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State - that European nations, particularly France, fear could threaten Europe if left unchecked.

In a statement released during the visit to Mali of its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, the European Union said its support would help the so-called G5 Sahel countries of Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania establish a regional task force.

“The stability and development of the Sahel region are crucial not only for Africa but also for Europe,” Mogherini said in the statement. “We are neighbours and what happens on one of our continents has an impact on the other.”

Last year, the Sahel nations proposed establishing special units, each composed of around 100 well-trained soldiers, which would be deployed in areas where jihadist groups are known to operate. [nL8N1J00BC]

They would complement the efforts of regular armed forces, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and France’s Operation Barkhane, which has around 4,000 troops deployed across the five Sahel countries.

France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali a year earlier. However, militants continue to attack security forces and civilian in Mali and its neighbours.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who visited Mali on his first trip outside of Europe last month after his election, has reaffirmed Paris’s commitment to the region and called on Germany and other European nations to ramp up military and development aid.

($1 = 0.89 euros)

Reporting By Emma Farge; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Tom Heneghan