June 21, 2017 / 3:53 PM / in a month

U.N. Security Council backs West Africa force to fight Sahel militants

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday unanimously backed a West African force to combat militant groups as well as arms, drug and human trafficking in the Sahel region after diplomats said France softened the resolution's language to secure the support of the United States.

The vast, arid region has in recent years become a breeding ground for jihadist groups - some linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State - that European countries, particularly France, fear could threaten Europe if left unchecked.

Last year, the nations of the Sahel - Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania - proposed establishing specially-trained units of around 100 soldiers each, which would be deployed in areas where jihadist groups are known to operate.

"We cannot let the Sahel become a new refuge for terrorist organizations of the whole world. In the Sahel, all of our security is at stake, not just the security of the ... five states," said French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre.

The United States, however, did not believe a resolution was warranted and did not want the world body to help fund the force, diplomats said. The United States is one of council's five veto powers, along with France, Britain, Russia and China.

The first draft resolution authorized the force to "use all necessary means" to carry out its operations, but following council negotiations, the language was revised to "welcome the deployment."

The resolution also encourages countries to provide support. The European Union has already committed $56 million to the Sahel force.

The United States is trying to cut the cost of U.N. peacekeeping and is reviewing each of the 16 missions as they come up for Security Council renewal. Washington is the largest contributor, paying 28.5 percent of the $7.9 billion (6.24 billion pounds) peacekeeping budget.

Special units proposed by the five Sahel nations would complement the efforts of regular armed forces, a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and France's "Operation Barkhane," which has deployed around 4,000 troops across the region.

France first intervened in early 2013 to drive out militants who had seized northern Mali a year earlier. But militants continue to attack in Mali and its neighbours.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols, editing by G Crosse

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