The European Union will double its funding for a multi-national military operation in West Africa's Sahel region to counter Islamist insurgencies, the EU's top diplomat said on Friday, part of a broader effort to stop migrants and militants.
At a donor conference of about 50 countries including the United States, Japan and Norway, former colonial power France looked set to win enough backing to allow the new regional force to be fully operational later this year.
“This is not about charity, this is a partnership,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters, promising a doubling of EU funding to 100 million euros for the G5 Sahel force, made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
The G5 Sahel force needs more than 400 million euros to be able to meet the demands of its Western backers, up from the 250 million euros it has now.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou said many young people in the impoverished Sahel had just two options in life: to die in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe or to die at the hands of militants.
“We have to act resolutely to change the face of the Sahel region or risk seeing this region of the world fall irreversibly into chaos and violence,” Mr Issoufou told the conference after asking leaders and ministers to stand for a moment of silence for two French soldiers killed this week in Mali.
Fears that violence in the arid zone could fuel already high levels of migration towards Europe and become a springboard for attacks on the West have made military and development aid there a priority for European nations and Washington.
While the deaths of four US soldiers in October in Niger have highlighted the security threat, public awareness is low.
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy struggled to name the five countries of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania as he arrived at the conference in Brussels.
France, which has more than 4,000 troops in the region, hopes to reach at least 300 million euros in military aid on Friday to overcome financing problems for the force that was first proposed in 2014, while militants have scored military victories in West Africa.
So far, the United States has pledged 60 million euros to support it. Another 100 million euros has been pledged by Saudi Arabia, 30 million from the United Arab Emirates and 40 million on a bilateral basis by EU member states, separate from the EU.
The G5 Sahel operation, whose command base is in central Mali, is to swell to 5,000 personnel from seven battalions and will also engage in humanitarian and development work.
France is also set to pledge 1.2 billion euros to fund development in the region over the next five years, a 40 percent increase over current levels, while other countries are expected to provide more aid for farmers, schools and water projects.
President Emmanuel Macron will call for more to be done to support a separate EU train-and-advise mission in Mali, an EU diplomat said, and is seeking 50 more EU troops after Belgian soldiers ended their tour in the mission.
France has been frustrated that it is the only EU member with combat troops on the ground, although others have contributed trainers. By training African forces, Paris sees an eventual exit strategy for what is its biggest foreign deployment, diplomats said.
Tuaregs and jihadists took over northern Mali in 2012 before French forces pushed them back in 2013 in an intervention that alerted Washington to the growing threat in the region.