EU doubles Sahel force funding
European leaders on Friday doubled their funding for a joint African force tackling jihadists in the Sahel at an international conference in Brussels, as fresh violence highlights the region's fraught security situation.
The European Union announced an extra 50 million euros ($61 million) for the G5 Sahel force at talks with heads of state from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, adding to around 280 million euros already pledged by international donors.
The high-level meeting attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other top European leaders comes after two soldiers from France's counter-terror force in West Africa were killed when their vehicle hit a mine in northeastern Mali.
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.
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 and on Friday, France is expected to announce 1.2 billion euros over the next five years.
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".
- Libyan 'detonator' -
The G5 Sahel 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.
Intended to become fully operational in mid-2018, the G5 Sahel force operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the area and the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
"We expect in 2018 that we will be delivering more in terms of body armour, counter-IED material, trucks and even a hospital which will be built, we think, in Mali later this year," an EU official said.
But missing from Friday's conference agenda is one of the major destabilising factors in north Africa -- the chaos in Libya, which plunged into chaos after the fall of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
Rival militias, tribes and jihadists are vying for influence across the oil-rich country, with two rival administrations governing different parts of the territory.
"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 Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, the current chair of the G5 Sahel group.
"We must put an end to this chaos by restoring the authority of the Libyan state to the whole of its territory."
As well as EU leaders and the United Nations, around a dozen other countries will be 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.
Macron's office said the fact so many countries were attending was "proof of the collective realisation of the Sahel's importance for the stability of Africa and also Europe".
France insists the G5 force is not an "exit strategy" for Operation Barkhane, its own anti-jihadist mission in the region.
France, the former colonial power in the area, 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.