LA CELLE-SAINT-CLOUD/PARIS (Reuters) - A French-backed West African military force to tackle Islamist militants must secure its first victories by the middle of 2018 to prove its worth and ensure more concrete support from the United Nations, the French and Malian leaders said on Wednesday.
The G5 Sahel - composed of the armies of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad - launched a symbolic military operation to mark its creation in October amid growing unrest in the region, whose porous borders are regularly crossed by jihadists, including affiliates of al Qaeda and Islamic State.
However, France which has some 4,000 troops in the region, has bemoaned that the militants have scored military and symbolic victories in West Africa while the G5 force has struggled to win financing and become operational.
To give the force a boost, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the leaders of the five participating countries, Germany and Italy as well as the Saudi and Emirati ministers at a summit.
In a sign Gulf Arab states are upping their influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates committed 130 million euros ($152.75 million) on Wednesday, although the initiative has not won support from key regional player Algeria.
“As far as the G5 are concerned, we are aware that the clock is ticking,” Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta told a news conference after the summit of some 15 nations to discuss the force’s implementation.
“There is an urgency today that we quickly achieve results in the fight against terrorism,” he said, warning of a possible jihadist rush from the Middle East to West Africa.
Thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, French troops and U.S. military trainers and drone operators have failed so far to stem the growing wave of jihadist violence, leading world powers to pin their hopes on the new force.
Despite French efforts, U.S. reluctance at the United Nations has meant the force does not have direct financial backing from the U.N. making it harder to secure almost $500 million in initial funding for the operation and much-need equipment.
Macron sees the full implementation of the G5 force as a long-term exit strategy for his own forces that intervened in 2013 to beat back an insurgency in northern Mali.
“We have a very simple objective which is to have the first victories in the first half of 2018,” Macron said. He added that the aim was to ensure 5,000 men were ready by then.
Macron has personally backed the force, including asking Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to contribute to it and prove the kingdom’s intention to tackle extremist ideology.
Saudi Arabia on Wednesday confirmed it would provide 100 million euros for the force, while the UAE will provide 30 million euros, bringing commitments to more than half the amount targeted. A separate donor conference is to be held on Feb. 23.
“Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia are interested in the Sahel. Getting a seat at the table, being seen as security stakeholders, is something that fits in their respective strategies,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a geopolitics researcher at Paris 8 University.
Macron said he wanted to push the Security Council to divert funds from the more than 10,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping force in Mali to the G5.
One notable absence in Paris was Algeria. Authorities in Paris are concerned it is not fully co-operating in tackling militants roaming along its border or pushing the implementation of Malian peace talks that it brokered.
“All those who want to take part in the Sahel coalition are welcome. I went to Algeria last week and I invited Algeria to co-operate more actively to the work today. It’s Algeria’s decision, but I want (their help),” Macron said in reply to a journalist’s question.
Algiers remains suspicious of military activity by its former colonial ruler near its border.
Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has said the mission duplicates existing activities since Algeria has already been co-ordinating counter-terrorism efforts with the G5 for over 10 years.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander in Paris and Lamine Chikhi in Algiers, Editing by Richard Balmforth