PARIS/ABUJA (Reuters) - West African leaders meet in Paris on Saturday to try to improve cooperation in their fight against the Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls and threatens to destabilize the wider region.
Outrage over the kidnapping has already prompted Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, criticized at home for his government’s slow response, to accept U.S., British and French intelligence help in the hunt for the girls.
Last week he asked France, itself a target of Islamist militants for its military intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali, to arrange a summit in Paris with Nigeria’s neighbors Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin, and Western officials.
French diplomats ruled out any Western military operation but said they expected a regional plan to take shape for countering Boko Haram, which has killed more than 3,000 people in a five-year campaign to establish an Islamic state in mostly Muslim northeast Nigeria.
“The aim is to come up with an action plan this weekend so that these countries, with the support of the West, cooperate in terms of intelligence gathering, information exchange and border control to stop Boko Haram smuggling weapons and moving freely in this zone,” said a French diplomatic source.
“There is absolutely no dialogue between Cameroon and Nigeria,” said the source. “Until now, Cameroon has not accepted it has a problem - but it has been destabilized in the north by Boko Haram and in the east by the influx of refugees from Central African Republic. It must talk with Nigeria.”
With about 6,000 troops operating in either Mali to the northwest or the Central African Republic to the east, Paris has a major interest in preventing Nigeria’s security deteriorating, fearing that Boko Haram could spread north into the Sahel, and beyond Cameroon into the Central African Republic.
“Among Western nations, France is the main target for Boko Haram. That’s why we are getting involved,” a French diplomat said.
With Nigeria’s large and well-funded army seemingly unable to quell the threat from Boko Haram, many fear that impoverished Niger and an increasing lawless northern Cameroon could struggle to deal with a serious attack.
Nigeria has already reached an agreement with Niger to allow its troops to cross the border in pursuit of Boko Haram, and is discussing a similar agreement with Chad.
But it has complained that the far north of Cameroon is being used by Boko Haram militants to shelter from a Nigerian military offensive and to transport weapons, and has urged Cameroon to tighten border security.
Boko Haram has also launched attacks into Nigeria from the area, kidnapped a French family there last year, and is suspected of a number of abductions of French and other foreigners.
French interests in West Africa have been attacked on numerous occasions since Paris intervened in Mali in January 2013 to oust al Qaeda Islamists who, French officials say, had helped to train and fund Boko Haram militants.
France is pushing Nigeria, which currently sits on the 15-member United Nations Security Council, to ask for Boko Haram and its key members to be placed on a U.N. sanctions list, as has been the case with other militant groups such as al Qaeda.
“The government is no longer opposed to Boko Haram being discussed at the U.N. Security Council and we’d like sanctions to be imposed on it as they are on al Qaeda,” one French diplomatic source said.
Editing by Mark John