French President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday that Paris was ready to strengthen its military force in Africa to help troops fight extremists in the Sahel region.
“France is ready, not only to maintain, but if necessary to strengthen its engagement in the region because the fight against terrorism in the Sahel is essential, in my opinion,” he stated during a joint news conference with his Nigerien counterpart Mahamoudou Issoufou.
“The fight is not won today ... it is essential not only to maintain but to further improve our agility on the ground, to innovate more and to focus our priorities on the regions identified as the most vulnerable,” he added.
France had been seeking to eventually withdraw from the poorly policed scrublands of the Sahel region - which abuts the Sahara to the north and has become a recruiting and training ground for Islamist militants - with the help of a new regional African force.
But Macron said from Niamey that the Sahel would remain a focus for the French army, should it be required in the future.
He announced an additional 10 million euros to help educate girls, one of the priorities promoted by Issoufou to curb migration.
This sum is on top of 15 million euros already invested by France to help education in Niger. Paris pledged in mid-December to spend 400 million euros over 2017-2021 to support Niamey.
The G5 Sahel, which began official operations in November, is made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania that will patrol the region in collaboration with 4,000 French troops deployed there since intervening in 2013 to quell an insurgency in northern Mali.
Former colonial power France has been leading regional counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa's Sahel region, but is keen to spread the burden as its military is engaged on various fronts.
With 500 men, Mirage 2000 fighter jets and drones, the French base in Niamey is the air hub for the Barkhane force.
Macron said on Friday the Barkhane mission would continue in 2018 with the "aim of winning clear and important victories against the enemy".
"I trust you," to carry out the mission in the Sahel, which "is a priority" because "this is where our security, the future of part of the African continent is played out," he said.
"We must not leave the Sahel to terrorist organizations ... (we must not) give up the slightest bit of territory to them," said Macron, who was accompanied by Defense Minister Florence Parly.
The Barkhane mission had stopped groups in various areas and they were "no longer capable of undermining a state", he said.
The mission would however continue against scattered groups of extremists, the president added.
"The root of the problem is not terrorism, it's underdevelopment, trafficking and the impact of population growth -- that's what we need to solve," said Colonel Regis Colcombel, deputy commander of Barkhane.