By LORNE COOK
BRUSSELS (AP) — International donors on pledged about $510 million Friday to help five impoverished countries in West Africa’s vast Sahel region set up a new counterterror force as a deadly jihadist threat grows.
The 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force for Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger was seeking nearly $500 million for its mission along mostly desert borders, including near Libya — the main jumping-off point for thousands of African migrants bound for Italy.
The amount pledged “goes far beyond our initial expectations,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, speaking at a summit in Brussels of 32 leaders and 60 delegations. “It’s a tremendous result that allows us to begin putting the force into operation.”
Underscoring the security threat, two members of a French counterterrorism force in Mali were killed Wednesday when their armored vehicle struck an explosive device.
Friday’s summit started with a minute’s silence in their memory, and French President Emmanuel Macron called for greater efforts to help the region.
“Today the Sahel, because we failed in the past in terms of security and development, has become a terrain where the trafficking of humans, of drugs and arms that feed terrorism, has grown,” he said.
While the new funding was welcomed, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou warned that it would keep the counterterror force operational for only one year based on current needs.
“It’s easy to imagine that the confrontation between the terrorists and us lasts for more than a year. So we need a continuous form of financing,” he said, suggesting that the G5 force should come under the United Nations’ control.
“The Sahel is one of Europe’s frontiers. The Sahel is a shield, a dike that must never burst,” Issoufou said, reminding the leaders that “security is a global public good.”
Security has deteriorated in the Sahel since 2011, with extremist attacks a regular occurrence, as fighters but also people seeking better lives in Europe move easily through the porous borders that have an estimated combined length of some 17,500 miles.
More than 1,100 people have been killed since 2014, nearly 400 of them last year. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is considered the most active of around eight groups operating there.
But the EU insists it’s not just about security. Brussels says political help and development assistance are vital in a region wracked by extreme poverty, harsh climate, food shortages and health crises.
“We need to support these five countries, especially also to give hope to the next generations so that they have also a future in their own country,” said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel.
The EU has invested more than 9 billion euros in development aid in the Sahel for 2014-20. Part of that is self-interest as the EU seeks to ease its burden by tackling the root causes of migration.
While migrant arrivals through Libya have dropped, more than 120,000 people still left there last year. Many perish in the crossing of the Sahel and Sahara before they can even take their chances in the Mediterranean.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Brussels contributed.