Sahel defence ministers in Paris in push for 'G5' force
Defence ministers from five countries in the Sahel were meeting Monday with French counterpart Florence Parly in the latest push for a pooled force fighting jihadism in the fragile region.
The brief meeting, in which senior military officers were to take part, aims at setting down a concrete timetable for deploying the so-called "G5 Sahel" force, which carried out its maiden mission in November with French support.
The unprecedented initative brings together Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which aim to create a fully fledged force of 5,000 troops by mid-2018.
These countries have been hit by jihadist 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 badly under-equipped.
France, an enthusiastic backer of the force, is leading efforts to drum up funding.
So far, 294 million euros ($360 million) has been pledged, led by 100 million euros 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.
In an interview Monday with the French daily Liberation, 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 sp-called Islamic State organisation said the various jihadist 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 Islamic State in the Great Sahara.
Western security and military sources have recently said they have detected stepped-up cooperation on the ground among the various jihadist groups in Sahel.