Fledgling 'G5' force ventures into Sahel hotspots
In a cloud of ochre dust, a column of army pickup trucks slowly advances on a dirt road near Mali's border with Burkina Faso -- one of the world's hotspots for jihadism.
The national flag of Mali flaps in the wind: an appropriate symbol for a brand-new force whose first task is to assure terrified locals that governance is returning to lawless lands.
"We are here to secure the zone and to reassure people that they can live a normal life," Lieutenant Gaoussou Diara, who commands 100 Malian troops in the convoy, told AFP.
"The track between Tessit and Kayrougouten (in central Mali) is a major route, used by traders and the population."
The new force, called the G5 Sahel, aims at pooling the military resources of five desert nations -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- that are reeling from years of jihadist attacks.
Thousands of civilians have died, many of them in suicide bombings, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. Villagers or nomads who fall under jihadist rule are subject to vicious punishments in the supposed name of Islamic justice.
The idea behind the 5,000-troop force dates back to November 2015, but it took another two years to become operational, with its first forays launched this week.
Funding remains a major challenge, given the extreme poverty of the five nations. France, the former colonial power in the Sahel, is the scheme's biggest political backer and is providing a hefty dose of support to help the multinational force get going.
- Border fear --
Priority number one is to re-establish authority in the frontier region, especially in the "tri-border" area where the frontiers of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge.
Here, the stony landscape, sparsely interspersed by trees, sprawls to the horizon.
It is nominally inhabited by nomadic cattle farmers -- but it has also become a blood-stained haven for jihadist groups linked to the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and for traffickers of almost every hue.
In Tillit, a Malian village located several dozen kilometres from the Burkinabe border, bears the scars of these overlords.
In the middle of a cluster of poor houses made of daub stands a sign bearing the jihadist insignia. The village's mayor and teacher, threatened, have fled. On the school's blackboard is written the date that children last had a lesson: June 1, 2017.
"I cannot talk to you, I cannot sell anything," the owner of a modest grocery apologises to the visitor.
Mamadou, an interpreter, explains. "The people here are afraid. The Malian security forces do not often come here."
- Five-nation force -
On paper, the G5 Sahel plans to number up to 5,000 military, police and civilian troops by March 2018, placed under the leadership of a Malian general, Didier Dacko, at a command post in the Niger capital Niamey.
The troops will comprise two battalions each from Mali and Niger and one each from Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania.
In these very early stages, the national contingents are not being mixed, as operational procedures are hammered out.
And French support -- providing training, air and armoured backup and logistical support -- is critical.
About 20 armoured vehicles drawn from France's forces in the Sahel, known as Operation Barkhane, were part in the G5's first border convoy this week. France intervened militarily in northern Mali in 2013 to help drive out al-Qaeda-linked gunmen.
"We don't have the same resources as Barkhane, but we have acquired a lot of experience with them," said a Malian lieutenant who spoke on condition of identification only by his first name, Diara.
He had just ordered his troops to carry out security checks on two motorbikes that came near the convoy.
"Today, we are the ones who are leading the patrol, and our French friends are in support."
A French infantry captain, Gauthier, pointed out that the Malians had a unique skills set.
"This is their country, and it is easier for them to distinguish between a farmer and a terrorist -- and their knowledge of the terrain is critical."
As if to prove the point, his armoured vehicle was guided by Malian troops to the safest point for crossing a dried-out riverbed.
"The goal is for these countries to be able to work together to ensure their own security. We are there to help them gain capability," said a French lieutenant colonel, who gave his name as Marc-Antoine.
"Ultimately, these operations aim at providing an exit door for French forces" in the Sahel, he said. "We do not wish to become an army of occupation."