France confident of victories against extremists in Africa's Sahel region
France's President Emmanuel Macron said after a conference to boost a young African military force countering growing extremism in the Sahel region that he foresees victories there "in the first half of 2018".
Mr Macron announced new pledges for the effort, one from Saudi Arabia of 100 million US dollars and another of million dollars from the United Arab Emirates.
The French leader called the conference to breathe life into the new force, made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania but in need of a huge boost to fulfil its mission, which includes fighting organised crime and human trafficking.
Nearly five years after France intervened to rout Islamist extremists in northern Mali, then controlled by an al Qaida affiliate, the threat has spread to neighbouring countries in the volatile Sahel, the sprawling, largely barren zone south of the Sahara desert.
The growing extremism has also spawned new jihadi groups, including one claiming affiliation with the Islamic State group.
In recent months, security forces and the 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali have been prime targets in the Sahel.
Attacks often occur in the border regions of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where four US soldiers were killed earlier this year.
Besides the leaders of the five-nation force known as G5 Sahel, delegations representing Europe, the African Union and international organisations were in attendance.
German chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the urgency of making the force fully operational.
"Islamic extremism is propagating. We can't wait," she said.
Mr Macron said France's 4,000-strong counter-terrorism force in the region since 2014, known as Barkhane, will help the G5 force with critical air, intelligence and other support and "we will win victories in the first half of 2018".
"We need to win the war against terrorism in the Sahel zone and it's in full swing," Mr Macron said.
"There are attacks every day.
"There are states that are, today, threatened and there is a real presence of terrorists. We want to intensify our efforts with this new format ... that's our goal."
The new force has carried out a single test operation.
The operation in early November involved 350 forces from Burkina Faso, 200 from Niger and 200 from Mali, according to the French Defence Ministry.
The G5 Sahel force launched in Mali in July with Mr Macron present.
He has taken the lead in persuading partners to help make the force viable, arguing that the fate of the Sahel region affects Europe.
"Terrorists, thugs and assassins" must be eradicated, he said in July.
The fledgling force is expected to grow into a 5,000-strong army by March but needs soldiers, training, operational autonomy and funding.
Mr Macron said he sees it at full strength as planned.