In a letter addressed to “foreign defense attaches,” Burkina Faso has asked for advance notice of military overflights, warning that any unidentified planes will be considered “enemy.”
A letter sent by Burkina Faso’s military to the French attache and seen by AFP calls for 48-hour advance notice of any flight over its territory.
“It has frequently emerged that unidentified aircraft are overflying our bases and areas of operation,” says the letter signed by chief of staff Brigadier-General Moise Miningou.
“Henceforth, instructions have been given to deployed units for these aircraft to be considered enemy and to treat them as such.”
“We request that you inform us 48 hours in advance of any flight by your aircraft in these areas.”
The former colonial power in the Sahel, France has deployed 4,500 troops to the region for its Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel, and the letter comes as anti-French sentiment in Burkina Faso mounts.
The French contingent in Burkina Faso comprises 200 special forces troops based in Kamboinsin, in the suburbs of the capital Ouagadougou, and France and allied forces have deployed a range of aircraft to the Sahel to enable Operation Barkhane’s counter-terrorism mandate.
According to a July Armed Forces Ministry dossier on the Operation Barkhane mission, France has deployed three Reaper drones, seven Mirage 2000 C or D fighter jets, between six and 10 tactical and strategic transport aircraft including C-130s, and at least 16 helicopters to the Sahel region. Atlantic 2 long-range patrol aircraft and A400M transport aircraft have also been used.
The French aircraft are based in Niamey in Niger and N’Djamena in Chad.
Update November 19 The French Armed Forces Ministry said on Tuesday that two Mirage 2000-C jets returned to France from Niamey Airbase, marking the end of the presence of this aircraft type in theater after 5 years and more than 5,000 flight hours. Four Mirage 2000-D jets remain at Niamey.
French allies have also deployed aircraft to Operation Barkhane. Three United Kingdom Royal Air Force CH-47 Chinook heavy transport helicopters are deployed in Gao, and Denmark intends to send two Merlin transport helicopters next month.
Separately, Niger hosts a large U.S. troop deployment, and earlier this month, AFRICOM said U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flight operations had begun from Nigerien Air Base 201 in the northern city of Agadez. The government of Niger recently gave the U.S. permission to arm drones stationed in the country, and armed U.S drones already fly from Air Base 101 near the capital Niamey, around 800 km southwest of Agadez.
The CIA also operates a separate drone base in Niger.
A senior Burkina Faso military official, Lieutenant-Colonel Ismael Diouari, said in a phone call to AFP in Abidjan that the letter was addressed “to all foreign defense attaches, not just France.”
However he denied that there were any problems between the two countries. “Relations are good,” he said.
But a French military source said that the letter proved that there was a “certain tension” between Burkina Faso and France.
“Obviously, Burkina Faso is not going to open fire on French aircraft. And at the same time, the French can’t give 48-hour notice for a flight over Burkina territory.”
Update November 19 A spokesperson for U.S. Africa Command was unable to confirm that the Burkina Faso request was received, but told The Defense Post that AFRICOM does not “conduct any engagements or activities without the direct coordination and support of the host nation leadership through the U.S. Chiefs of Mission.”
international operations in the Sahel
In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in Mali’s desert north. France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the U.N. MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.
But the militant groups have morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Large swathes of Mali remain outside government control, and inter-ethnic bloodshed is a regular occurrence.
The U.N. says that since January more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Burkina Faso and Mali, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five Sahel states – more than twice the number displaced in 2018. Access has become increasingly difficult, but 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Many armed groups are active in the Sahel region including Islamic State-affiliated groups, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Serval mission evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, and roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed in the region, including around 2,700 soldiers in Mali. Barkhane focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and troops work alongside other international operations, including the 14,000-strong MINUSMA U.N. stabilization mission in Mali and the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), a planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism force comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
France has been trying to build international support for a new military force to work alongside Barkhane.
French plans for a new international special operations task force for the Sahel were first reported in early October, and on November 5, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that France expected the new force – dubbed “Takuba” – to deploy in Mali by 2020. Around a dozen European states “have expressed an interest in taking part in this initiative,” a French Armed Forces spokesperson said.
Estonia is the first partner to confirm a special operations forces deployment to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020 and that force will ‘assist, advise and accompany’ the Malian Armed Forces.
Last week, senior officials said the U.S. is seeking a meeting of the Coalition against ISIS early in 2020 to focus on threats in West Africa and the Sahel.
With reporting from AFP