France, West African leaders discuss fighting extremism

PARIS (AP) — French and West African heads of state began a two-day summit Monday on the fight against Islamic extremists in Africa’s Sahel region, as France considered a gradual reduction of its troops in the area.

The leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania are participating in the meetings in N’Djamena, Chad. French President Emmanuel Macron joined from Paris via videoconference.

Macron may announce a reduction of French troops in Africa’s Sahel region that he presented last month as a possible “adjustment” following successes by French forces last year. France is also counting on an expected greater involvement of other European countries.

The deployment of about 5,100 troops in five West African countries represents France’s largest military operation abroad — including 600 additional troops sent last year to step up counterterrorism efforts.

A regional five-country force was also launched in 2017 with support from the United Nations, the African Union and the European Union.

Yet extremist groups linked to both al-Qaida and the Islamic State have kept carrying out attacks across the region, taking control of territory in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Mali also suffered a coup in August that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar. After a similar coup in 2012, Islamic extremists grabbed control of major towns in the north of the country, which prompted the French-led military intervention the next year.

A French top official, speaking anonymously under the presidency’s customary practices, said military operations will focus this year on targeting key figures in a group affiliated with al-Qaida and stepping up pressure on other jihadist groups.

The official added that talks were also meant to discuss political changes needed to provide greater stability, fight corruption and boost development in the region.

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