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France to launch military operation in Sahel region within days

media French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian photographed on May 12, 2014. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

France on Sunday said it would replace its Serval operation in Mali that broke the grip of Islamists in the north with a sweeping initiative covering the broad, largely unruly Sahel region.

Launched in January 2013, the Serval operation initially sent 2,500 French troops to northern Mali to help local soldiers push out Islamists and Taureg rebels from the country’s dry vast north who seized control after a coup.

The new operation, dubbed Barkhan, will start in the coming days together with five countries - Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad - in the Sahel-Sahara region, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday in a television interview.

The operation aimed at combating extremist violence would consist of around 3,000 French soldiers, 1,000 of whom would stay based in northern Mali and the rest deployed to the other four countries.

Le Drian said that drones, helicopters and fighter jets would be used.

“The president wanted a reorganisation of our troops in the (Sahel) zone,” Le Drian said.

France had initially planned to pull troops out of Mali in May but fresh clashes between rebels and the army in the northern town of Kidal prolonged the operation.

Le Drian said the effort had been successful but that concern has shifted to countries in the wider area to ensure that there is no upsurge in terrorism.

“There are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” Le Drian said.

Le Drian also brought the security risks home by adding that the aim is to prevent a global highway for jihadist groups.

“It’s our security which is at stake,” he said.

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