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France takes aim at Saudi over failed West Africa commitments

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s armed forces minister criticized close ally Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for failing to honor commitments it made almost two years ago to provide millions of euros to a West African counter-terrorism force fighting Islamist militants.

FILE PHOTO: French Defence Minister Florence Parly leaves the Elysee Palace following a cabinet meeting in Paris, France, October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

Saudi Arabia agreed in December 2017 to provide about 100 million euros ($110.7 million) to the G5 Sahel force, which is composed of the armies of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad.

But nearly three years after its launch, the G5 Sahel remains perennially underfunded and hobbled by poor coordination.

Groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their foothold across the arid Sahel region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

“For the G5, there was a first phase when the international community was mobilized and donors offered commitments to arm the G5, but then there were delays,” France’s minister of the armed forces, Florence Parly, told a parliamentary hearing.

“Saudi Arabia has still not honored the promises it made ... I can only regret that Saudi Arabia doesn’t honor those commitments,” she said, adding it appeared others were now starting to disburse funds.

It was a rare rebuke by France of its Saudi ally and comes almost two years after French President Emmanuel Macron had personally asked Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to contribute to the force and prove the kingdom’s intention to tackle extremist ideology.

France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamist militants who had occupied the north, but rather than stabilizing the region, the situation has progressively worsened.

On Tuesday, it advised against all travel to Burkina, 10 days after 39 people were killed following a jihadist attack in the country.

France still has about 4,500 troops across the Sahel and the government has faced criticism at home that its troops are bogged down, while critical voices in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability.

Parly dismissed those charges and said it was the easy way out by some politicians to blame France.

“We don’t have a desire to be in the Sahel eternally, but France provides useful support,” she said. “I don’t think we’re bogged down,” she said.

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Reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Matthew Lewis