Macron calls for countries' support in fighting extremism

by: YACOUBA OMAR, Associated Press Updated:

GAO, Mali (AP) - On his first official trip outside Europe, new French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday highlighted his determination to crush extremism but said "other countries can do more" to help protect Europe from the threat. He was visiting France's largest overseas military operation, which is combating jihadist groups in West Africa.

The region's terror threat is "clearly a risk for Europe," he said, vowing that French troops would remain in Mali until the extremists are eliminated.

At a joint news conference with Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Macron asked Germany to provide more support to French-led efforts to eradicate the extremist groups. He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel told him she backs the idea during a meeting in Berlin earlier this week.

"France de facto ensures Europe's security, in Mali and in other theaters of operations. But other countries can do more, in terms of backup, in terms of development (and) partnerships for equipment," Macron said.

"I want to strengthen those European partnerships, in particular with Germany," he added.

The German government earlier this year approved an expansion of the country's military deployment in Mali, with Berlin sending more helicopters to support the U.N. peacekeeping mission there and raising the maximum number of German soldiers from 650 to 1,000.

The French leader also praised a "crucial" and "exemplary" intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States for military operations in Africa's Sahel region. Without it, "we would not be able to operate in the area," he said.

Macron said he has "no doubt" the cooperation will continue, adding that he will discuss defense and security issues with President Donald Trump during a working lunch at a NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Macron repeatedly pledged ahead of the May 7 election that fighting terror would be his priority, after multiple attacks in France since 2015 that killed more than 230 people.

Most of the West African extremist groups France is combating trace their origins to al-Qaida's North Africa branch.

Mali's president expressed his gratitude toward France for its military intervention that began in 2013 after extremist groups overran the country's vast northern region. The groups were quickly pushed from strongholds but remain a deadly threat.

"The road is long ... but we are going forward and we will succeed," Keita said.

France's Operation Barkhane has about 4,000 soldiers in Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. The eastern city Macron visited, Gao, is home of the permanent French military base in Mali, with 1,600 troops.

Gao also is where a suicide attack on a Malian army camp killed more than 75 people in January. That attack, claimed by the al-Qaida-linked al-Mourabitoun extremist group, happened just days after former French president Francois Hollande visited the city.

The victims were soldiers and former fighters trying to stabilize the region after a 2015 agreement with the government. The attack was a major blow to peace efforts in northern Mali, where rival groups have been vying for control or outright independence.

"I don't think Macron's arrival will change anything to our daily life," Ousmane Maiga, a resident of Gao, told The Associated Press. "Macron comes to see the French soldiers but not us."

Another resident, Mohamed Gaiga, said he wants Macron "to put an end to the massacre of Malians. France has the military and political power to bring back peace in Mali, but we observe that even groups that signed the peace agreement are still fighting each other."

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Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet and John Leicester in Paris and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed.