N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - Defence ministers from West Africa’s arid Sahel region have agreed to work together to establish special rapid reaction forces to counter the growing threat from al Qaeda and Islamic State-linked militants.
With its vast, loosely controlled desert expanses on the edge of the Sahara and its porous borders, the Sahel has proved to be fertile soil for the expansion of Islamist militancy in one of the world’s poorest regions.
At a meeting in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, defence chiefs from Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania — the so-called G5 Sahel countries — pledged to form special units to respond quickly to threats and attacks from Islamist militants.
“These groups, each composed of around 100 well-trained and very mobile men, will deploy in zones where the terrorists operate,” the G5 Sahel’s permanent secretary Najim Elhadj Mohamed said following the meeting late on Friday.
He said the units, tailored after Spanish forces used against the Basque separatist group ETA, would receive training and support from both Spain and France.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, during a visit to the region last month, promised to boost assistance to the Sahel countries in the wake of dramatic attacks on hotels in Burkina Faso and Mali claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Intelligence will be compiled at a threat analysis and early warning centre to be established in Mauritania, where the Sahel group also plans to create a special war college.
Financing was expected to come from European Union funding already pledged to the Sahel nations, the regional body said.
The G5 Sahel heads of state already called for the creation of a multinational force last year.
French forces intervened in 2013 to drive back Islamist fighters after they seized Mali’s desert north a year earlier, citing concern that the area could become a launching pad for attacks on targets in Europe.
However, the militants have since reorganised and launched a wave of attacks against local security forces, U.N. peacekeepers and civilian targets that has extended well beyond northern Mali and into neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile Nigeria’s Boko Haram, which has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, is stepping up raids and suicide bombings in the Lake Chad region, which straddles the borders between Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Reporting by Madjiasra Nako; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Adrian Croft