PARIS - The European Union and other international donors pledged more than half-a-billion dollars Friday to support a multi-national military operation in Africa’s vast Sahel region, which has fallen prey to smugglers, human traffickers and terrorists in recent years.
Speaking after an international meeting on the Sahel in Brussels, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the pledges far exceeded initial expectations. She said they mirrored the strong international support for the so-called G-5 Sahel — a regional development and security initiative headed by five Sahelian nations.
Mogherini said the challenges facing Sahel spill well beyond the region, and demand a collective response — although G-5 countries must define their own strategy and priorities.
Along with African countries, Europe is concerned about the Sahel not only because it is a transit route for tens of thousands of migrants trying to reach its shores, but also because it fears it may become a launching pad for terrorist strikes at home.
Insecurity has deteriorated in the region since 2011, and extremist attacks occur regularly. There are also fears that Islamic State group fighters fleeing Syria and Iraq are heading there.
The United States has about 800 troops in Niger alone, while France has 4,000 forces in the region under its Barkhane anti-terrorism operation.
Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, noted the money raised will only cover the G-5 operations for this year. Continuous funding was needed, he said. And until security conditions improve in Libya, he added, it will be difficult to stabilize Sahel countries further south.
International support includes billions of dollars in development aid for the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron said in the next few weeks, the first development initiatives will be up and running, including in Mali’s restive central region of Mopti.