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UN: Africa's Sahel desperately needs help to fight violent extremism and stop its spread

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Africa’s Sahel region has become a hot spot for violent extremism, but the joint force set up in 2014 to combat groups linked to the Islamic State, al-Qaida and others has failed to stop their inroads, and a senior U.N. official warned Tuesday that without greater international support and regional cooperation the instability will expand toward West African coastal countries.

“Resolute advances in the fight against terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime in the Sahel desperately need to be made,” U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Martha Pobee told a U.N. Security Council meeting.

The counterterrorism force, now comprised of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger, lost Mali a year ago when its ruling junta decided to pull out. Pobee said the force hasn't conducted any major military operations since January.

She said the force is adjusting to new realities: France moving its counterterrorism force from Mali to Niger due to tensions with the junta and Mali's decision to allow Russian mercenaries from Wagner to deploy on its territory.

She said Burkina Faso and Niger have recently strengthened military cooperation with Mali to counter an upsurge in extremist attacks, but “despite these efforts, insecurity in the tri-border area continues to grow.”

Pobee criticized the international community, saying a lack of consensus among donors and partners left the joint force without sufficient funding and other needed support to become fully operational and autonomous so it could have “the capacity to help stabilize the Sahel region.”

An agreement between the U.N., EU and the force under which the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali supplied fuel, rations, medical evacuation and engineering support to the joint force is expected to end in June, she said, expressing hope that the Security Council will consider the issue of U.N. financing for African peace operations.

Eric Tiaré, executive secretary of the force known as the G5 Sahel, said experts have finalized a new concept of operations, which will be submitted to its defense council and then to the African Union to be endorsed.

"Given that the Sahel is at a crossroads, as it is seeing many threats to international peace and security, it's absolutely vital that we provide support to the force," he said. "The force needs what it has always lacked and what it has always sought. That is sustainable funding and equipment as we seek to counter terrorism."

U.N. experts have reported in recent years that Africa has been the region hardest hit by terrorism, and U.N. counterterrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov told the Security Council in January that the Islamic State group's expansion in Africa’s center, south and Sahel regions is “particularly worrying.”

Last August, African security expert Martin Ewi said at least 20 African countries were directly experiencing activity by the Islamic State group, and more than 20 others were “being used for logistics and to mobilize funds and other resources.”

Ewi, who coordinates a transnational organized crime project at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, told the Security Council that the Islamic State threat was growing by the day in Africa and the continent could be “the future of the caliphate," which is what the Islamic State called the large swath of Syria and Iraq it seized in 2014 but lost in 2017.

Ewi said the Lake Chad Basin — which borders Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon — was the extremist group’s biggest area of operation and areas in the Sahel were now “ungovernable.”

Pobee warned that without significant gains in fighting terrorism, “it will become increasingly difficult to reverse the security trajectory in the Sahel, and the further expansion of insecurity towards coastal West African countries.”

She said the recent instability in Sudan was an additional cause for concern. “The devastating effects of the continuing destabilization of the Sahel would be felt far beyond the region and the African continent," Pobee said.

The U.S. deputy ambassador, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, said the United States “is especially concerned by the security, humanitarian and political crises unfolding in the Sahel, which stem primarily from governance failures.”

He criticized state-led military operations in Burkina Faso and Mali, and Mali's operations with the Wagner mercenaries, which he said have led to "large-scale civilian casualties and reports of human rights violations."

DeLaurentis urged Mali to rejoin the G5 Sahel, saying regional efforts are needed to fight terrorism, criminal networks and climate change. And he extended U.S. support to Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali to complete their transitions to democratically elected civilian governments.

“We and other partners are keen to consider restarting currently restricted support,” he said. “The election of democratic governments would help us resume such assistance.”