France could back talks with some jihadist elements in Africa’s restive Sahel region, a source in President Emmanuel Macron‘s office said on Monday.
A dialogue with some elements of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) would be “possible,” the source said, because their agenda was more local and opportunistic than other groups.
Macron ruled out negotiating with jihadist groups in the Sahel last month, telling Jeune Afrique magazine: “We don’t talk with terrorists. We fight.”
The source told AFP on Monday there could be no negotiation with the leadership of Al-Qaeda, and any talks with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) were also “neither possible nor requested by anybody in the region.”
“We’re at war with two organisations which are not of the Sahel but international, and which are waging a terrorist battle beyond the region,” the source said.
Although affiliated with Al-Qaeda — which the source said “nobody has ever managed to negotiate with” — GSIM contains elements which might deserve “a response that is different from the war on terror.”
There is no reason for France to stand in the way of discussions between regional governments and such elements, the source said.
Negotiating with jihadists in the Sahel region became a hot topic in October when French hostage Sophie Petronin was freed following talks led by Malian envoys — officially without French participation.
“Our objective is, by eliminating certain leaders, to allow the Malians and the others to sit at the same table,” the source said.
The source also said that a summit is planned in Africa in February with the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries — Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.
France is planning to reduce its troop strength in the region just a year after sending hundreds of extra troops to the Sahel, army and government sources have told AFP.
France would like to withdraw several hundred troops from its current 5,100-member contingent to make room for a stronger European commitment, they say.
This would take it back to levels deployed before a surge in activity in January, when rising numbers of jihadist attacks prompted France to bolster its troop presence.