EU doubles Sahel force funding but African leaders issue warning

Brussels - European leaders have doubled their funding for a force tackling jihadists in the Sahel, but African leaders warned the money must come quickly if it is to be effective.

The European Union announced an extra 50 million euros ($61 million) for the G5 Sahel force at a conference in Brussels on February 23 with heads of state from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, taking total pledges by international donors to over 410 million euros.

But just a fraction of that money is currently available to spend and Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, the current chair of the G5 Sahel group, said it was needed urgently to deal with an influx of Islamic State (IS) group fighters driven out of Libya and Syria.

The chaos in Libya, where rival militias, tribes and jihadists are vying for influence, is fuelling instability in the Sahel, Issoufou and African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat warned, calling for an international push to bring peace to the oil-rich state.

"The Libyan crisis has been, we know, the detonator of the degradation of the security situation in the Sahel, and day after day, it contributes to its amplification," said Issoufou.


- IS influx -


"We must put an end to this chaos by restoring the authority of the Libyan state to the whole of its territory."

Friday's meeting, attended by 32 leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, observed a minute's silence in honour of two soldiers from France's counter-terror force in West Africa who were killed in a mine blast on Wednesday.

Map of the Sahel region, which covers an area almost as big as the EU

It was the latest in a surge of attacks underscoring the challenge facing the five countries, among the poorest in the world, which are on the frontline of a war against Islamist militants.

Europe hopes that spending money to improve the security and economic situation in the region will help stem the flow of migrants seeking a better life across the Mediterranean and prevent the Sahel becoming a springboard for jihadist attacks on the West.

The G5 force aims to train and equip 5,000 local troops to patrol hotspots and restore authority in lawless areas. As well as fighting militants, the force also tackles smuggling and illegal immigration networks that operate in the vast, remote areas on the margins of the Sahara.

"Daesh fighters driven out of Libya and Syria are taking refuge in the Sahel, especially from Libya, so it's urgent the pledged funds are mobilised as quickly as possible," Mahamadou said, using an alternative name for IS.

The force has so far set up a headquarters and command structure and carried out two operations, with French support, in the troubled "tri-border" area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet.

It is intended to become fully operational in mid-2018, and to operate alongside France's 4,000 troops in the area as well as the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.

International pledges for the force now total 414 million euros, Mogherini said, but up to now only the 50 million euros has been made available.

Mahamat said jihadist groups would likely step up attacks in Mali as the G5 force geared up, warning "they're not going to sit back with their arms crossed".

Recent operations against militants in northern Mali have left around 30 rebels dead, Macron said, vowing "total determination" to defeat the threat.

Opening the conference, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said "security and development must go hand in hand" in the Sahel, an area almost as big as the EU where a fifth of the population do not have reliable food supplies.

The bloc has budgeted nearly eight billion euros for development assistance in the Sahel from 2014 to 2020, while France pledged 1.2 billion euros over the next five years and Germany 1.7 billion euros.


- Development push -


The EU's diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said more pledges from individual countries were expected, saying "the price of not having peace has to be paid every day".

As well as EU leaders and the United Nations, around a dozen other countries were represented by foreign ministers including Saudi Arabia, Norway, Morocco and Tunisia.

Donations to the G5 so far have been led by Saudi Arabia with 100 million euros, while the United Arab Emirates has given 30 million euros and the US $60 million.

France, a former colonial power, intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to help government forces drive Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists out of the north.

Within two weeks, the Sunni radicals were flushed out of most urban areas but they continue to mount attacks from desert bases.

Violence spread from northern Mali to the centre and the south, and then spilt over into Burkina Faso and Niger.

By Damon Wake and Jerome Rivet