France has said it would boost its military presence in the Sahel by adding 600 troops to its 4,500-strong operation in Mali and four other countries in the region.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a statement on Sunday that the bulk of the reinforcements would be deployed by the end of February in the border zone linking Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger to counter increasing violence carried out by armed groups.
“The reinforcement should allow us to increase the pressure against the ISIS-GS. We will leave no space for those who want to destabilise the Sahel,” Parly said referring to the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) group in the Greater Sahara.
“Another part of these reinforcements will be directly engaged within the G5 Sahel forces to accompany them in combat,” she added.
In recent months, a rise in violence in the region, where multiple armed groups are active, has fed a feeling of increased insecurity among locals.
Last month, the United Nations’ envoy for West Africa told the Security Council that attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, as more than 4,000 deaths were reported in 2019.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas said the attacks were often intertwined with organised crime and violence among competing groups.
In a report to the UNSC last July, UN experts said “the most striking international developments” during the first six months of 2019 included “the growing ambition and reach of terrorist groups in the Sahel and West Africa” where ISIL and al-Qaeda fighters were collaborating to undermine fragile countries.
Many areas of the Sahel that have seen the most fighting are severely underdeveloped. Armed groups have exploited poverty as well as religious and ethnic divisions to recruit fighters.
France, seeking to strengthen its anti-terrorism operations in the Sahel after losing 13 of its own troops in a deadly air collision last November, will also send about 100 armoured vehicles to the region, a military source told AFP news agency.
The November accident was France’s largest military loss in decades and prompted President Emmanuel Macron to say Paris would begin a thorough review of its Operation Barkhane, with “all options on the table”.
French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group, which brings together Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in the three borders zone, launched a new plan to fight armed groups on January 13.
France has lost 41 soldiers during the mission to date as its forces seek to train up local fighters.
The defence minister added that Chad “should soon deploy an additional battalion” within the joint force of the G5 Sahel.