France maintains Sahel force to 'decapitate' Al-Qaeda groups
President Emmanuel Macron pledged on Tuesday to keep French troops in the Sahel region of western Africa, to help to "decapitate" Al-Qaeda-linked insurgent groups that local governments are struggling to hold back.
But while Macron said there would be no "immediate" drawdown of the 5,100-member Barkhane force, he made clear that France expected to have a far lighter presence over time.
"Changes that are likely to be significant will be made to our military deployment in the Sahel when the time comes, but they will not be made immediately," Macron told reporters after a video summit with the leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The so-called G5 countries were urged to step up their anti-terror fight and work on restoring government control in areas where Islamist fighters have closed schools and driven millions from their homes.
Just hours before the summit opened, Malian sources said two soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb in central Mali.
"We are re-engaging our forces in order to decapitate these organisations," Macron said after the two-day meeting in Chad's capital N'Djamena.
The aim is to strengthen actions against terrorism while delivering a "political jolt" to give the people something to hope for, he said.
He confirmed efforts would now focus on combatting the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and in particular one of its main armed groups, Katiba Macina, linked to Al-Qaeda.
That marks a shift from several months ago, when the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara was seen as the primary threat to stability in the desert region, where more than two million people have been displaced over the past eight years.
France first sent troops into Mali in early 2013 to fight Islamist insurgents who had seized control of the country's northern half, with the Barkhane operation formally starting in August 2014.
However, despite some successes including last year's killing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, insurgents have continued to carry out deadly attacks.
The effort has cost the lives of 50 French soldiers, prompting calls in France for a review of Barkhane's mission and speculation Macron was ready to bring some troops home.
"A French withdrawal, a massive withdrawal of men, which is a possibility I have considered, would be a mistake," Macron said.
"It would be paradoxical to weaken our deployment at a time when we have a political and military alignment that enables us to reach our goals."
He also said G5 leaders agreed there would be no negotiations with insurgents such as Iyad Ag Ghaly, the GSIM leader, or Amadou Koufa of Katiba Macina -- something Mali's government had considered last year.
The two men "are enemies, in no way whatsoever are they discussion partners" for ending the insurgency, Macron said.
He indicated he would reassess the situation after the summer, saying there should be an "evolution" of the French contingent into a lighter presence.
"In the coming months we will not change our presence. We hope that we will have concrete results in terms of security in the coming months, for me this means between now and the summer," Macron said.
"Beyond summer, I want to work with our partners for an evolution of our presence to consolidate our military victory in the region."
Chad commits troops
Without giving a timescale, Macron indicated that the French-led Takuba multinational task force should take over responsibility.
He said the aim was to have a 2,000-member Takuba force, with a French contingent of 500 soldiers at its core, in close cooperation with the national armies of the region.
The fledgeling Takuba force has already seen Czech, Swedish and Estonian troops deployed in the region, though Macron has so far been unable to obtain significant support from France's larger EU partners.
"We are not going to do this immediately but this is what envisage over time," Macron said.
Macron also welcomed a new commitment by Chad to send 1,200 troops to the flashpoint "three border" zone between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, fulfilling a pledge made a year ago.