France launches Sahel coalition to fight rising jihadi violence

NIAMEY/PARIS (Reuters) - France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.

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Former colonial power France has deployed thousands of soldiers in the arid region south of the Sahara desert since 2013, and now has 5,100 troops there. But violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has been on the rise.

The coalition, first announced at a January summit after a series of attacks killing over 200 soldiers, was ratified during virtual meetings of more than 40 defence and foreign ministers.

“We can now hope that the setbacks suffered by our armies during the second half of 2019 and the difficulties implementing our development projects are behind us,” said Niger’s Foreign Minister Kalla Ankourao.

The new structure brings the so-called G5 Sahel states of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania, plus French forces and any future troops under a single command, and also coordinates development, governance and humanitarian work.

Paris has long sought more support from other European countries and cooperation between Sahel states.

The coalition would provide more help from European special forces for regional armies, and financial aid from countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“This is a good example of the new multilateralism that the world needs today,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Although France and Sahel forces have made some recent gains including the killing of al Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel, militants have continued attacks, pushing further south towards coastal countries such as Ivory Coast.

Meanwhile, suspected extrajudicial killings of civilians by national armies, including allegations that soldiers in Mali killed 43 people in two villages last week, have drawn condemnation.

“If there are exactions against civilians, you cannot expect their collaboration,” Drissa Traore, a Malian human rights activist, told a news conference on Thursday.

Le Drian urged accountability while Mali’s Foreign Minister Tiébilé Dramé said recent allegations would go to tribunals.

Despite such promises in the past, no charges against security forces have been announced in recent years.

Reporting by Boureima Balima in Niamey, Thiam Ndiaga in Ouagadougou, Aaron Ross in Dakar, Bate Felix and John Irish Paris; Writing by Bate Felix and Aaron Ross; Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Cawthorne