French army boss warns of IS takeover of Sahel

The head of the French army says the future of West Africa’s Sahel region rests on what happens in the coming year.

Chief of Staff François Lecointre said if chaos was allowed to take root, the Islamic State (IS) group would fill the void.

He said military action alone would not defeat the upsurge of Islamist and other violence in the region – a political solution was also required.

Gen Lecointre defended the presence of 4,500 French troops fighting jihadists in the Sahel and said France would soon be taking the battle to the next level.

Last month, 13 French troops were killed when their helicopters collided in Mali while on a combat operation.

Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania are the G5 Sahel nations bearing the brunt of attacks by militants linked to IS and al-Qaeda.

The five countries have a counter-insurgency force, supported by the French troops, to fight the militants.

The force was launched four years ago when almost all the attacks by the Islamist militants were in Mali.

As jihadist violence escalates in Mali, analyst Paul Melly considers if France can persuade the rest of Europe to join the deadly fight.

Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has called on fellow European Union (EU) governments to dispatch special forces to the Sahel, to help curb militant attacks that have killed more than 100 Malian troops in recent weeks.

But France, too, is paying a heavy price for its role in the struggle against Sahel jihadism, with the death of 13 soldiers when two helicopters collided on Monday.

Altogether, it has lost 38 troops in this almost seven-year campaign.

Extremist violence, sometimes intermingled with criminal trafficking or local community tensions, is disrupting everyday life and any hopes of development in this desperately poor region, which fringes the Sahara.

But the causes are complex and neither negotiations nor military operations have yet managed to restore security.

Indeed, the crisis appears to be getting worse.

Despite Sahelian countries’ creation of a joint force to tackle jihadists, and the presence of 4,500 French soldiers and more than 14,000 United Nation (UN) peacekeepers, this year has seen the jihadist groups step up their war against Mali and its international allies. -BBC

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