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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Second Sahel 'G5' anti-terrorist force mission begins

The force has been working to re-establish control in lawless frontier regions in the Sahel, south of the Sahara

French defence minister Florence Parly (3rdL) has a dinner with soldiers of the Operation Barkhane, a French counter-terrorism operation in Africa's Sahel region, as they celebrate New Year's Eve, on December 31, 2017 in Tessalit. Daphné Benoit / AFP
French defence minister Florence Parly (3rdL) has a dinner with soldiers of the Operation Barkhane, a French counter-terrorism operation in Africa's Sahel region, as they celebrate New Year's Eve, on December 31, 2017 in Tessalit. Daphné Benoit / AFP

Five Sahel countries — Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso — on Monday launched their second anti-terrorist operation in the troubled region, after talks in Paris with their partner France.

After the discussions between the defence ministers of the so-called G5 Sahel and their French counterpart, no details were released about the new operation for "security reasons".

"We are moving forward … the joint force is gaining momentum … the first operation has taken place, the second one is starting today," Malian defence minister Tiena Coulibaly told a press conference alongside his G5 counterparts and French defence minister, Florence Parly.

The force has been operating, with French backing, to re-establish control in lawless frontier regions in the Sahel, south of the Sahara, where terrorist groups have been able to flourish.

"Jihadist groups are extremely mobile. However, we have observed a particularly critical area, the 'tri-border' area, which is why G5 Sahel forces are focusing efforts there," said Ms Parly

The "tri-border" area is where the frontiers of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge, and where the first G5 Sahel force operation Hawbi took place in November with French support.

At Monday's meeting, the African nations also agreed on a road map to speed up deployments of the force and to "strengthen staffing before the spring", said Ms Parly.

The initiative aims to create a force of 5,000 troops by mid-2018.

Read more: Saudi, UAE head to Paris to offer helping hand to West Africa force

The G5 Sahel countries have been hit by militant attacks that began in Nigeria, claiming thousands of lives, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, crippling local economies and worsening food security.

The G5 Sahel force is intended to work alongside France's 4,000 Barkhane troops, which deployed to Mali in 2013, and the UN's 12,000-strong Minusma peacekeeping operation in Mali.

But the five participating countries — all former French colonies — are among the poorest in the world and their militaries are poorly equipped.

France is leading efforts to drum up funding.

So far, €294 million has been pledged, led by €100m committed by Saudi Arabia.

That sum has enabled the first phase of operations. Another round of funding talks takes place in Brussels on February 23.

Read more: Sahel force funding shows Saudi 'serious' on terrorism fight, Analysts say

In an interview on Monday with the French daily Liberation, Ms Parly said a key goal of the G5 Sahel plan was to ease dependence on French forces, enabling them to pare back their presence in the Sahel.

"The Africans themselves say it — this security problem is first and foremost their problem," she said.

On Friday, a group claiming to be from the so-called ISIL organisation said the various groups in the Sahel were teaming up to fight the G5 force.

"We are joining hands to fight the miscreants," said a spokesman for the group, which calls itself the ISIL in the Great Sahara.

Western security and military sources have recently said they have detected stepped-up co-operation on the ground among the various extremist groups in Sahel.