Leaders from five Sahelian countries and French President Emmanuel Macron have met in Mauritania’s capital, Nouakchott, to discuss how to reduce attacks in a region plagued by escalating violence and a worsening humanitarian situation.
Macron said on Tuesday troops from his country and the G5 Sahel bloc of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – were having military success against armed groups in the Sahel, a semi-arid region directly south of the Sahara desert in northwest and central Africa.
“We are convinced that victory is possible in the Sahel, and that it is decisive for stability in Africa and Europe,” said Macron, who in January had hosted his Sahelian counterparts in the French city of Pau.
At that summit, the countries had agreed to bring their forces under one command structure – and the change in tactics has yielded “spectacular results” and “shifted the dynamic” in the conflict, according to Macron.
“We are in the process of finding the right path thanks to the efforts that have been made over this last six months,” he told a news conference after the end of the meeting.
“Areas have been taken back from the terrorist groups (and) the armies have redeployed,” said Macron, “We now have to consolidate this dynamic and strengthen it … The ground that we have recovered will not be given back.”
But a joint statement earlier by the United Nations and a group of aid organisations painted a dark picture of the situation on the ground.
“The security situation in the Sahel countries has deteriorated considerably in recent months. Conflicts prevailing in the region are having unprecedented humanitarian consequences,” it said.
Burkina Faso’s President Roch Marc Kabore said the summit’s context was “marked by the persistence of terrorist attacks”.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez also attended the summit, held almost six months after Macron, while other European Union leaders joined the talks by video.
Paris has long been calling for more help from its European allies in the mission, which it sees as essential for protecting the security of Europe’s southern flank.
French forces have been assisting regional countries since 2013 in their fight against a plethora of armed groups, including affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
The violence kicked off in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by Tuareg separatists that was swiftly overtaken by armed groups.
Despite the presence of thousands of UN and French troops, the conflict has spread to central Mali, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states farther south.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and the economies of the three countries – already among the poorest in the world – have been grievously damaged.
The joint forces, led by France’s 5,100 troops, have so far targeted the regional affiliate of ISIL, concentrating military efforts on the Liptako-Gourma regions.
Earlier this month, France said its forces killed al-Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel during an operation in Mali.
The forces operating in the Sahel include the UN’s 15,000-strong MINUSMA mission; France’s Operation Barkhane, whose roughly 5,000 troops are largely based in the north and east of the country; the internationally supported G5 Sahel Joint Force, which is mostly composed of troops from neighbouring Sahel countries while operating in the south, centre and east of Mali; a European Union training mission that supports Malian security forces; and the recently approved task force Takuba, an EU special forces initiative set to be operational in the restive tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger by 2021.