Amid fears U.S. will pull troops from Africa, French minister heads to Washington

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s armed forces minister said on Wednesday she would travel to Washington in the coming days to discuss U.S. military support to French forces in the Sahel region, amid growing concern of a U.S. exit from the area.

FILE PHOTO: French Defence Minister Florence Parly leaves the Elysee Palace following the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris, France December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

France, the former colonial power, has 4,500 troops in Mali and the wider Sahel, but security has been progressively worsening. The United States provides intelligence, logistical and drone support for the French forces, but there have been mixed signals from Washington that it could pull out.

“We count on the precious support of the United States for the success of this consolidated effort,” Florence Parly told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“I will be in the American capital in the coming days to consolidate the existing deployment.”

Militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold in the north-central region of Africa, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali a year earlier.

The U.N. Security Council then deployed a peacekeeping mission - known as MINUSMA - in Mali in 2013. The U.N. Security Council, which is due to renew the mission’s mandate in June, was briefed on Mali on Wednesday.

The United States suggested that the council consider changing the focus of the U.N. mission to protecting civilians instead of supporting the implementation of a failed peace deal. Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Cherith Norman Chalet, said “a new approach that disrupts the status quo” was needed by June.

“Additionally, the mission can reduce its size, allowing member states to apply resources toward more effective efforts in the region,” Norman Chalet told the 15-member council.

“We must recognize that peacekeeping missions are not the answer to growing terrorist threats in Mali. A clear-eyed assessment of MINUSMA is needed to determine how the mission most effectively complements other security activities in the region,” she said.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission currently has some 13,000 troops and police on the ground.

Reporting by John Irish in Paris and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Rosalba O’Brien