Hollande to visit west Africa

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PARIS (AFP) – President Francois Hollande on Thursday will begin a trip to three former colonies in west Africa just as France puts finishing touches to a military operation in the restive Sahel region to combat extremist violence.

His trip comes days after France announced the end of its military offensive in Mali that freed the north of the country from the grip of Islamists, replacing it with the new operation, codenamed Barkhane, which will involve some 3,000 French troops and span the wider, largely lawless Sahel region.

But in a sign that tensions are far from over, a French legionnaire died Monday in a suicide attack near the northern town of Gao, the ninth casualty that France has suffered so far in the west African nation.

Hollande’s visit will take him to Ivory Coast, France’s former star colony in Africa and the world’s top cocoa producer, uranium-rich Niger and Chad, where headquarters for Barkhane will be located.

The Mali offensive, which began in January last year, has largely been deemed a success by the international community despite a resurgence of violence in the country’s restive north.

As part of Barkhane, which is being implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, around 1,200 French soldiers will stay in northern Mali.

Hollande will start his African tour in Abidjan, the commercial capital of Ivory Coast, which is on the economic rebound after a decade of unrest sparked by a failed coup in 2002 which led to a low level civil war and briefly split the country in half.

The former regional powerhouse — where France has huge economic interests — has posted 10 percent growth for the past two years.

In Niger — one of the poorest countries in the world that is surrounded by restive areas in Nigeria to the south, Libya to the north and Mali to the west — Hollande will visit a French military base from which surveillance drones are deployed within the region.

The president will “continue strategic talks on all these crisis areas surrounding the country and establish how we can collaborate to ensure better security in the region,” a source close to Hollande said.

In the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, which apart from troops will mobilise drones, helicopters, fighter jets, armoured vehicles and transport planes.

“The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday when he announced the new operation.

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