France softens proposed U.N. backing for Sahel force to appease U.S.

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council is set to vote on Wednesday on a draft resolution to back a West African force to combat terrorism and arms, drug and human trafficking in the Sahel region after France weakened the language in a bid to appease the United States.

FILE PHOTO - French President Emmanuel Macron addresses French troops in Africa's Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017. REUTERS/Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool

The vast, arid region 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.

Last year, the Sahel nations - Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania - proposed establishing special units, each of around 100 well-trained soldiers, which would be deployed in areas where jihadist groups are known to operate.

The United States did not believe a resolution was warranted and did not want the world body to help fund it, diplomats said. The United States is one of five council veto powers, along with France, Britain, Russia and China.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters on Tuesday he was confident of “strong support” among the 15-member U.N. council after two weeks of negotiation on the French draft text, which he described as having reached a “successful conclusion.”

“The text that we have we believe is strong in itself and also stronger in terms of the political support it will bring to the force,” Delattre said.

Instead of authorizing the force to “use all necessary means” to carry out its operations, the draft resolution now “welcomes the deployment,” according to a copy seen by Reuters.

It no longer asks Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to report back on options for U.N. support for the force and instead notes that the West African states are responsible for ensuring the troops have adequate resources.

The draft resolution also encourages countries to also provide support. The European Union has already committed $56 million to the Sahel force.

The United States is trying to cut the cost of U.N. peacekeeping and is reviewing each of the 16 missions as they come up for Security Council renewal. Washington is the largest contributor, paying 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion peacekeeping budget.

Special units proposed by the five Sahel nations would complement the efforts of regular armed forces, a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and France’s Operation Barkhane, which has around 4,000 troops deployed across the region.

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

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Richard Chang