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Chad to send troops to Sahel jihadist flashpoint

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Chadian soldiers run during a mock ambush during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 6, 2014. REUTERS/Joe Penney

Chad will send 1,200 troops to combat jihadists in a flashpoint Sahel border zone, its president said Monday, as France looks to reduce its longstanding military presence in the vast, volatile region.

Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and France are holding talks on the future of their campaign against insurgencies raging in the Sahel, which according to the UN have killed thousands and displaced more than 2 million.

The troops will be deployed to the flashpoint “three borders” zone between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno said on Twitter on the fringes of the regional summit.

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Chad, which reputedly has the best-armed forces among the “G5” Sahel nations, had promised a year ago to send a battalion to the area.

Opening the summit, Deby said it was time for the international community to “urgently” step up funds for development and poverty alleviation to help cut off sources of recruitment for jihadists.

The meeting, which French President Emmanuel Macron joined by videolink, comes a year after France boosted its Sahel deployment, seeking to wrench back control in the brutal, long-running battle.

But despite touted military successes, jihadists remain in control of vast swathes of territory and attacks are unrelenting.

Just hours before the summit opened, Malian sources said two troops had been killed by a highway bomb in central Mali.

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The deaths bring the number of Malian, UN and French troop losses to 29 since the start of the year, according to an AFP tally.

Islamist fighters in the Sahel first emerged in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by ethnic Touareg separatists that was later overtaken by the jihadists.

France intervened to rout the insurgents, but the jihadists scattered, taking their campaign into the ethnic powder keg of central Mali and then into Burkina Faso and Niger.

The crushing toll has fuelled perceptions that the jihadists cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Jean-Herve Jezequel, Sahel director for the International Crisis Group think tank, told AFP that conventional military engagement had failed to deliver a knockout blow.

The jihadists “are capable of turning their backs, bypassing the system, and continuing”, he said.

Last year, France upped its Barkhane mission in the Sahel from 4,500 troops to 5,100 — a move that precipitated a string of apparent military successes.

French forces killed the leader of the notorious Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdel, as well as a military chief of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).

Troop drawdown?
But attacks in December and January have brought the number of French combat deaths in Mali to 50, prompting soul-searching at home about Barkhane’s cost and usefulness.

Macron last month opened the door to a drawdown, suggesting France may “adjust” its military commitment.

To lighten the load, France is hoping for more military support from its European partners through the Takuba Task Force that assists Mali in its fight against jihadists.

The Sahel armies, for their part, have been unable to pick up the slack.

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In 2017, the five countries initiated a planned 5,000-strong pooled force, but it remains hobbled by lack of funds, poor equipment and inadequate training.

While acknowledging the alliance’s weak points, Chad’s Deby on Monday “urged all member states to get on with making the joint G5 Sahel force self-sufficient, by giving it its own financial and logistical resources”.

Paris also hopes last year’s successes can strengthen political reform in the Sahel states, where weak governance has fuelled frustration and instability.

“The socio-economic situation in our countries isn’t gleaming… we’re appealing urgently to all our partners to give us the additional resources they promised,” Deby said, underlining “debt cancellation” as a priority for regional governments.

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