France launches Sahel coalition to fight rising jihadi violence

DAKAR/PARIS (Reuters) – France launched a coalition of West African and European allies on Friday to fight jihadi militants in the Sahel region, hoping more political cooperation and special forces troops would boost a military effort that has so far failed to stifle violence.

Paris was due to host virtual meetings of 45 defence and foreign ministers to launch the revamped coalition, which was first announced at a summit in January.

France has deployed thousands of soldiers in the arid region south of the Sahara desert since 2013, and now has 5,100 troops there aiming to combat Islamist insurgencies. But violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State has risen and the security situation deteriorated last year.

Paris has long said it wants more support from other European countries and cooperation between states in the region.

The revamped coalition would provide more help from European special forces for regional armies, and financial aid from countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Today in the Sahel, victory is possible. Our partners are becoming aware of that,” a senior official at the French president’s office told journalists ahead of the launch.

Although France and Sahel forces have made some recent gains including the killing of al Qaeda’s North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel, militants have continued attacks, pushing further south towards coastal countries such as Ivory coast.

Meanwhile, reported rights abuses including suspected extrajudicial killings of civilians by national armies have drawn condemnation.

“If there are exactions against civilians, you cannot expect their collaboration,” Drissa Traore, a Malian human rights activist, told a news conference on Thursday.

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