President Emmanuel Macron visited French troops fighting armed groups in the West African country of Mali on Friday, during his first official visit outside Europe.
At the end of his first week in office, Macron flew into Gao, a city in Mali’s north, where political unrest and ethnic strife have raged for more than five years.
He was met by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita with whom he held talks on the fight against “terrorism”.
He also met some of the 1,600 French soldiers stationed there, on the largest French military base outside of France.
Macron called on the Malian government to implement the 2015 peace deal, which has repeatedly faltered in the face of inaction and ongoing rivalries between the patchwork of armed groups operating in the north who signed the accord.
“My wish is for us to accelerate” the deal’s implementation, Macron said at a press conference, describing the so-called Algiers Accord as the top priority to ensure Mali’s security.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from the capital Bamako, said the short visit is a sign from Macron of his commitment to the region
“This visit to Mali is really to show to the French public, and also the people in West Africa and the rest of the world that he is not just the new president of France, he is also the commander-in-chief of an army that’s currently fighting an insurgency across northern Mali and the Sahel,” Haque said, referencing a politically fragile area that spans from Mauritania to Sudan and hosts a number of armed groups.
Haque added that Macron hopes to persuade European countries to join the fight in the region.
France intervened in its former colony in January 2013 to drive out al-Qaeda-linked groups that hijacked a rebellion in 2012 by ethnic Tuaregs and attempted to take control of the central government in Bamako.
France has sent some 4,000 soldiers to the region, while United Nations’ peacekeepers have been deployed to ensure Mali’s stability.
However, the UN’s forces have lacked equipment and resources, making a political settlement between Tuaregs and the government in Mali increasingly fragile.
“Our objective in the short-term is to help the regional armies control their territory, especially the fragile border zones,” a French diplomat told Reuters news agency.
“The peace process is not going fast enough even if there is a glimmer of hope.”
In April, Keita vowed to continue fighting “terrorist groups” in the country until they engage in serious peace talks.
In recent months, joint patrols by fighters from the various armed factions and the Malian security forces have helped restore confidence, but tensions remain high.
French officials have acknowledged that Paris is likely to have to keep its forces in the region for an indefinite period.
Diplomats said Macron wants to fine-tune policy to ensure countries were also given more help to develop, rather than just focusing on security aspects.