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France’s President Emmanuel Macron gestures during a bilateral meeting with Belgium’s Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes at the end of the NATO summit in Watford, Britain, December 4, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/Pool
WATFORD, England (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday demanded West African leaders dismiss growing anti-French sentiment across the region if they wanted France’s military to continue its operations against Islamist militants.
France, the former colonial power, is the only Western country with a significant military presence waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of west Africa just below the Sahara desert.
Rather than stabilizing, security has progressively worsened with Islamist militants strengthening their foothold across the region and making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
The French government has faced criticism at home that its troops are bogged down, while critical voices in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability and anti-French sentiment has grown.
“I want them (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) to clarify and formalize their demands regarding France and the international community: do they want our presence and do they need it? I want clear answers to these questions,” he said at a news conference after a NATO summit in London.
Thirteen French soldiers were killed in Mali after two helicopters collided last week and Macron said he could not accept accusations that Paris was in the region for neo-colonialist and economic reasons.
“I can’t have French troops on the ground in the Sahel when there is ambiguity (by authorities) toward anti-French movements and sometimes comments carried by politicians,” he said.
Macron said he had invited the five Sahel leaders to come to western France on Dec. 16 to discuss the issue.
“Their response is today a necessary condition for our troops to stay,” he said.
Reporting by Michel Rose and John Irish; Editing by Leigh Thomas
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