Paris, France, Dec 13 – Oil-rich Gulf countries pledged 130 million euros Wednesday towards fighting jihadists in West Africa’s Sahel region, as French President Emmanuel Macron hosted leaders in a bid to boost a fledgling five-nation military force.
The G5 Sahel force brings together troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — some of the poorest countries in the world — and money had been a major obstacle to getting it off the ground.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir promised 100 million euros ($118 million) at the talks while the United Arab Emirates offered 30 million euros, as both seek to show commitment to fighting extremism.
That brings total pledges over the 250 million euros initially needed, a relief for Macron who had lobbied the United States and the Gulf for cash.
“We must win the war against terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region,” Macron told reporters after meeting with the five countries’ presidents and other leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel.
“There are attacks every day. There are states which are currently in jeopardy,” he said following the talks at a chateau outside Paris.
Former colonial power France has been leading regional counterterrorism efforts through its 4,000-strong Barkhane force, but is keen to spread the burden as its military is engaged on various fronts.
Two years in the planning, the G5 Sahel force is set to cover a desert region the size of Europe.
The idea is for the five nations to develop their capacity to defend themselves through the new force, but their military forces are poorly equipped and need training in the new role.
The talks, which also gathered the prime ministers of Italy and Belgium and officials from the European Union and African Union, come in a busy week of diplomacy for Macron after a climate summit Tuesday.
– ‘Time is running out’ –
The International Crisis Group described the G5 force as a European effort to “bring down the expense of their overseas operations by delegating them partially to their African partners”.
Both France and Germany view the “politically and economically strategic” Sahel as “a source of migration and terrorism”, it added in a report Tuesday.
The ambitious goal is to have a pooled force of 5,000 local troops operational by mid-2018, wresting back border areas from jihadists including an Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Re-establishing law and order in the border zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where several hundred soldiers carried out last month’s debut mission, is top priority.
“We are aware that time is running out for us,” Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita told reporters.
“With what is happening in the Middle East, with the end of the war in Syria, there will be an influx (of jihadists) towards us,” he predicted.
The mission is complicated by the support enjoyed by the Islamists on the ground in areas where people’s experience of the state has often been one of inefficacy or outright abuse of power.
In central Mali, Human Rights Watch noted that many villagers welcomed Islamists’ efforts to punish livestock thieves, while others “expressed anger at Malian army abuses”.
The rights group urged the new international force to respect civilians’ rights in areas where ordinary people have often borne the brunt of the violence.
Across the region, thousands have died in years of attacks, and tens of thousands have fled their homes.
Troops have also been a frequent target, including an assault in Niger in October which left four US soldiers dead.
– Dangerous region –
The G5 force is set to work alongside Barkhane troops and the UN’s 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali — the most dangerous in the world, having lost 90 lives since 2013.
The EU has so far pledged 50 million euros to fund the force and France another eight million, while each of the African countries is putting forward 10 million euros.
Macron had visited both Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent weeks, and had also pressed the United States — which has promised $60 million in aid to the countries — when he met President Donald Trump in July.
A summit in Brussels in February is set to focus on raising more cash to secure a region that has become a magnet for Islamist militants since Libya descended into chaos in 2011.
In 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists overran northern Mali, including the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
France intervened in 2013 to drive the jihadists back but swathes of central and northern Mali remain wracked by violence, which has spilled across its borders.