The presidents of Chad and Niger pledged Wednesday to revive the G5 Sahel military grouping to boost the fight against jihadist insurgents after Mali quit the West African force.
But Niger’s Mohamed Bazoum who held talks in N’Djamena with junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, skirted round a question on the redeployment of French troops.
After nine years battling jihadists in Mali, France is pulling its troops out and reducing its presence in the wider Sahel following a falling out with the Bamako junta.
“The decision to withdraw from Mali is an episode that will be behind us,” Bazoum told a press conference.
“Soon there will be a meeting” of the remaining four G5 allies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger — “to make sure the G5 is viable,” he added.
Mali’s junta announced in May it was leaving the G5 alliance which was set up in 2014 and has worked alongside the French Barkhane force against multiple jihadist factions who are nonetheless advancing southwards.
More than 2,000 civilians have been killed in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso since the start of the year.
“We don’t consider that it’s over for the G5 Sahel, we are going to fight,” Bazoum insisted.
General Deby, who took power when his father died more than a year ago on the frontlines after ruling for three decades, said he “regretted” Mali’s departure from the G5.
“Let’s stay optimistic and hope it comes back on the decision,” he said.
France announced the Barkhane withdrawal in February after deploying as many as 5,000 troops in Mali. Only 2,500 French soldiers will remain in the Sahel.
Paris is set to maintain more than 1,000 troops in Niger, backed by three fighter planes, six armed drones, and up to six helicopters as its role changes to supporting rather than replacing local forces.
Bazoum said Niamey was still in talks with partners about the French redeployment.
The two presidents said they had signed a security agreement on Wednesday but gave no further details.
They also made no mention of how their own army deployments would be adjusted to take into account France’s troop reductions.
The reduced French operation that takes over from Barkhane will for now remain based in N’Djamena.
Chad’s army is considered the most powerful in the region and as the mainstay in the fight against jihadists has regularly gone into neighboring states.