N’DJAMENA/PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out an immediate reduction of French troops battling Islamist militants in the Sahel region of West Africa on Tuesday, saying a rushed exit would be mistake.
Macron said he was pushing back a decision on a troop reduction after a virtual summit of the five Sahel countries and their allies, during which Chad announced the deployment of 1,200 troops to complement 5,100 French soldiers in the area.
“Significant changes will undoubtedly be made to our military system in the Sahel in due course, but they will not take place immediately,” Macron said in Paris.
France, the region’s former colonial power, is searching for an exit strategy eight years after it sent troops to intervene in Mali against Islamist militants who had occupied the north of the country.
It has dispersed the militants from northern Mali but its counter-insurgency operation in the Sahel has cost billions of euros and 55 French soldiers have been killed.
Violence now shows signs of spreading to coastal West Africa, and militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have made territorial gains.
Last year, Paris boosted its troop numbers for its Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel by 600 to 5,100 soldiers.
“In the coming months, we will not change our presence. We will launch other important operations, and we will above all be reinforced by the Chadian battalion, by the Malian mobilization, and by contributions from Mauritania,” Macron said.
Experienced Chadian troops will be deployed in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
Macron said an “adjustment” in the French presence would depend on the involvement of other countries in the Takuba Task Force fighting militants in the Sahel alongside the Malian and Nigerien armies.
Hungary, Greece and Serbia were willing to join the international force comprising several European countries, he said.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would not be supplying troops for combat missions in Sahel as it wanted to focus on development projects.
(Reporting by Madjiasra Nako in N’Djamena, Michel Rose in Paris and Sabine Siebold in Berlin, Writing by Bate Felix, Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Timothy Heritage)