France rules out troop withdrawal from Sahel to 'cut off the head' of terror groups

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By Alice Tidey
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting via video-conference with leaders of the G5 Sahel Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a meeting via video-conference with leaders of the G5 Sahel Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021 in Paris.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Francois Mori

French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Tuesday that withdrawing French troops deployed in the Sahel region of northern Africa would be a mistake, arguing a slip up in the fight against terrorist groups in the region could have repercussions for the wider continent and Europe.

"I believe that to precipitate a French withdrawal (...) would be a mistake," Macron told reporters following a two-day summit with the leaders of Sahel countries Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad.

"I consider that the year 2020 has borne fruits, has allowed the victories that we expected," he said, also citing the "significant re-commitment of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger" in the fight against terrorist groups.

France increased its troops in the Sahel by 600 last year following a similar summit in Pau, bringing the total number of French soldiers deployed there as part of Operation Barkhane to 5,100.

The military operation was launched in 2014 but has come under pressure over the past two years due to local resentment at the French presence and the rising death toll for French troops — 27 French soldiers lost their lives in 2019 and 2020, nearly half the total since the beginning of the operation.

Macron said the increase of French boots on the ground has led to significant victories including the deaths of Abdelmalek Droukel, then-leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Bah ag Moussa, a military chief in the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

"We are there because we have a shared destiny with the Sahel. If the Sahel falls into the hands of terrorism, Africa will gradually fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists and Europe will live the consequences of this tragedy very clearly. So I think it is our duty to be by your side," Macron, who attended the summit virtually, said.

"It would be paradoxical to weaken our presence at a time when we have a political and military alignment favourable to the achievement of our objectives," he stressed.

He said that challenge going forward is to build on these victories and go "further and stronger" in order to "try to cut off the head" of al-Qaida-linked groups.

"We must not release pressure on terrorist groups," he went on.

He also flagged that France's call for more European support has been answered with the deployment in the second half of 2020 of a Takuba Task Force made up of troops from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

He said the task force is also "attracting the interest of a growing number of countries, particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe" and that the new US administration of Joe Biden had also indicated it would engage more.

G5 Sahel leaders also agreed at the summit that the reinvigorated military operation must be accompanied by a political and civil "surge" with state services including law enforcement, judiciary and education coming back in force in newly-liberated areas. It is hoped this would reduce the ability of terrorist groups to recruit.

According to Crisis Action, 2020 was the deadliest year for civilians in the Sahel. The United Nations' Refugee Agency (UNHCR) also that violence across the African region has now displaced more than 2 million people — a figure that quadrupled in just two years.