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France boosts anti-terror force in Sahel with 600 more troops as US mulls pull out

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A soldier of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, is pictured in Gao, Northern Mali on May 19, 2017.
A soldier of Operation Barkhane, France's largest overseas military operation, is pictured in Gao, Northern Mali on May 19, 2017.   -   Copyright  Christophe Petit Tesson, Pool via AP, File   -   CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON
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France is to boost its military presence in the Sahel, where it is fighting Islamist insurgents, by 600 troops, the Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Sunday.

It will bring the number of French soldiers taking part in the anti-terror operation, codenamed Barkhane, to 5,100.

"This is a significant effort for the French armies: most of the reinforcements will be deployed in the so-called "three borders" area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger," the ministry said in a statement.

Another part would will join the G5 Sahel forces made up of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.

"The fight against terrorism is our priority: in the Sahel, France is on the front line, but it must not be alone," the ministry's statement also said.

The announcement comes a few days after Florence Parly, the country's Defence Minister, called on the US not to pull its own anti-terror troops from the area.

In a joint press conference with US Defence Secretary Mark Esper in Washington on Tuesday, Parly said American support was "precious" and "needed".

Esper has launched a review of US military presence around the world and it is expected that the country will pull troops out of Africa to focus more resources on China.

In a testimony to the US Senate on Thursday, Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), said that the threat from terrorist groups in the Sahel including Al Qaida and the so-called Islamic State is "very serious, and that threat is on the advance."

"As we see the violent extremists advancing, if we were — if we were to withdraw support from the French precipitously, then that — that would not go in a good direction, " he added.

"Our position, the position of the Department of Defense is that the Europeans need to step up and do more in the — in the Sahel to help the French. The French are calling on Europe to step up and do more. I absolutely think that is the right thing to do," he went on.

France renewed its call for more European support on Sunday, with the Defense Ministry praising the Czech republic's recent announcement that it would send 60 troops on the ground.

"New announcements should take place soon, depending on the political and parliamentary calendars of the countries wishing to join us," it added.

France launched the Barkhane operation in August 2014 with 3,000 troops. Since then, 44 French soldiers have died.