- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

PARIS (AP) - France will broaden its military presence in Africa’s turbulent Sahel region with specialized new outposts to better fight the terror threat from extremist groups such as al-Qaida, the defense minister said Tuesday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is moving toward a regional counterterrorism approach in former French colonies such as Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. In a quick air and land campaign, French soldiers largely ousted al-Qaida-linked militants from northern Mali last year.

The minister expects to detail the initiative to U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and national security adviser Susan Rice, during a trip to Washington this week. France has worked closely with U.S. forces to try to fight extremism in Africa.

The Obama administration backed France’s intervention in Mali, holding it up as an example of situations where America’s allies can take lead roles in helping less developed countries fight against al-Qaida and other extremists without the need for the U.S. to put boots on the ground.

The counterterrorism plan was presented in detail to President Francois Hollande late last month, and hasn’t been publicly announced yet. It will involve creating specialized posts such as for logistics, intelligence-gathering and fighter planes, Le Drian said.

“We are reorganizing our deployment in Africa to be more reactive about potential crises,” he said over croissants in a ministry dining room, adorned with a colorful tapestry titled “The Tree of Joy” on the wall. “We will have the same number of soldiers - 3,000 in the Sahel region - but they will be organized differently.”

“We are going to reinforce Abidjan an as an entry point, a logistical support post,” he said of Ivory Coast’s commercial capital. “And then we’ll boost the intervention capacity on each of the different sites.”

Under the plan, Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, will be a hub of French air power in the region and a base for Rafale and Mirage fighters. A site in Niamey, Niger’s capital, will be equipped with unmanned aircraft such as France’s Harfang and - as of its first official flight on Monday - a U.S.-made Reaper surveillance drone that Le Drian helped authorize France to buy.

The new approach follows strategic recommendations laid out in the last review of the nation’s security and defense operations that put a new focus on Africa.

Under President Francois Hollande, a longtime friend and Socialist party ally of Le Drian, France has flexed its military muscle like rarely before over the last year. Le Drian has overseen what began as near-solo French efforts in Mali and Central African Republic, where some 1,600 French and 4,600 African troops have been deployed since last month to help stem bloodshed between Christians and Muslims.

The U.S. has backed French-led efforts in Central African Republic. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Tuesday the U.S. is continuing to provide logistical support such as airlifting for French and African troops heading into the country.

A year ago, French troops swooped into vast northern Mali to halt an advance of al-Qaida-linked militants seen as threatening its weak central government, and French forces have been maintaining a presence since then to help Mali return to stability.

Le Drian, who returned Monday from his seventh trip to Mali in the last 12 months, can hardly contain his contentment about developments there. A new president has been elected, its former coup leader is behind bars, and the al-Qaida-linked militants who remain in its arid north are hiding - their one-time infrastructure obliterated by French firepower.

He noted how soldiers marching in a military parade after the inauguration of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in September had worn sneakers and warm-up suits. On Monday, for an annual military holiday they all wore uniforms.

But some militants from al-Qaida’s north Africa wing fled Mali to Libya, where the central government has been too weak to ensure security in the south, and Libya border areas where they roam are a “sieve.”

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