President Emmanuel Macron arrived Friday in conflict-torn Mali as commander-in-chief to visit French troops fighting jihadists on his first official trip outside Europe since taking power last Sunday.
At the end of his first week in office, Macron flew into Gao, a city in Mali’s deeply-troubled north, where he will hold talks with his Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Macron is travelling with Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who as the former defense minister knows Gao well, and his replacement in that job, Sylvie Goulard.
Macron will also meet some of the 1,600 French soldiers stationed there, making it the largest base outside France.
The troops are part of Operation Barkhane, the counter-terror operation whose mission is to target jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region south of the Sahara.
Set up in 2014, the operation comprises around 4,000 soldiers who are deployed across five countries — Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
As he landed in Gao, Macron was met by Keita with whom he will hold talks on the fight against terrorism and the west African country’s rocky path since a 2015 peace deal.
His visit is in stark contrast to his predecessor Francois Hollande, who began his term pulling troops out of Afghanistan.
Northern Mali fell to jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in March 2012 and a French-led military intervention the following year drove out the extremists from key towns. But jihadists continue to roam the country’s north and center, mounting attacks on civilians and the army, as well as French and UN forces still stationed there.
Macron was expected to emphasize the need for closer European cooperation in the fight against jihadists, especially with fellow EU heavyweight Germany, French officials said.
The new president discussed the issue with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week, during his first visit to a foreign leader since taking power.
Germany currently contributes 550 troops to the multi-national UN force in Mali, called MINUSMA.
“Our objective in the short-term is to help the regional armies control their territory, especially the fragile border zones,” said a senior French diplomat. “The peace process is not going fast enough even if there is a glimmer of hope.”