Amid Sahel violence, France seeks more European special forces


By Sophie Louet

PAU, France, June 13 (Reuters) - France has asked European powers to provide special forces to support thousands of troops struggling to contain a rise in violence in West Africa, Defence Minister Florence Parly said on Thursday.

There has been an increase over the last six months in Islamist militant attacks and inter-ethnic violence in the Sahel region, highlighting the difficulty that foreign partners face in helping to restore stability.

"If we do not stabilise Mali, Niger or Burkina Faso, Europe will have above its head, not one, but two lasting Damocles swords: that of terrorism ... and that of illegal migration," Parly said in a speech at a French special forces bases in southwestern France.

France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamist militants who had occupied the north.

It has since kept about 4,500 troops in the region as part of Barkhane counter-terrorism operations, while the United Nations has a peacekeeping force in Mali of about 15,000 soldiers and police.

Western powers have also provided funding to a regional force made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to combat jihadists, but the so-called G5 force has been hobbled by delays in disbursing the money and poor coordination.

Some 23 European countries play a role in the region between financing and logistical support, but France has been at the heart of action trying to stop the spread of jihadist groups. Besides Paris, none provide special forces.

"If the Europeans, who are directly concerned, don't do it, who will? So, why not appeal to the special forces of European countries? They are perfectly capable of it if they want to," Parly said.

"This is what I proposed to several of our partners," she said referring initially to providing help to Malian troops.

A French military source said the idea was still embryonic and declined to comment on countries targeted or the number of potential forces.

Burkina Faso's foreign minister last month called for the creation for the Sahel of an international coalition similar to the one created to oust Islamic State in the Middle East.

Parly's comments were the latest to suggest a frustration from France amid rising violence in the region, with repeated Islamist attacks and communal clashes especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

(Writing by John Irish Editing by Frances Kerry)

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