By Marine Pennetier
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - France will step up the fight against resurgent Islamist militants in north and west Africa and will work more closely with Germany to help the tinderbox region, President Emmanuel Macron said on his first trip outside Europe on Friday.
Visiting Mali days after taking office, Macron vowed to keep French troops in the Sahel region until there was "no more Islamist terrorism" there. He said operations would be escalated in response to signs that militant groups were regrouping and uniting.
"It is vital today that we speed up. Our armed forces are giving their all, but we must speed up" efforts to secure the Sahel, he told a news conference in Gao, Mali, where he held talks with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and spoke to some of the 1,600 French soldiers based there.
Spurring economic development in the impoverished Sahel is also part of his strategy, he said. "We must win the war and win the peace at the same time."
Macron's early trip to Mali fulfilled a campaign promise, underlining the importance he places on combating militants in the Sahel whom he said could threaten Europe.
France has been particularly hard hit by Islamist militant violence, with more than 230 people killed over the past two years.
The Sahel, a politically volatile, mainly desert expanse stretching from Mauritania in the west to Sudan in the east, hosts a variety of jihadist groups and is seen as a springboard for attacks on European targets.
MACRON WANTS EUROPEAN ALLIES TO PITCH IN
While France would continue to shoulder the military burden of fighting militants in north and west Africa, Macron said Germany and other European nations could do more to help with both military and development aid.
He said he had discussed Mali with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Monday and the two decided to "strengthen our cooperation further to help the countries of the region.
"There is a need for the latest generation helicopters and armored vehicles. It is in that framework that reinforced cooperation with Germany can make us all more effective."
Macron said he would take part in the coming weeks in a meeting of the so-called G5 Sahel countries - Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania - all former French colonies.
He told French soldiers: "I won't risk your lives for nothing ... but my determination when in action will be total." Macron said later he had promised to give them the equipment they needed.
France intervened in 2013 to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who seized northern Mali the year before. It has since deployed some 4,000 soldiers, known as the Barkhane force, across the region to hunt down Islamists.
That operation paved the way for the United Nations to deploy its more than 10,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping force to the West African state.
In January, Germany's cabinet approved the deployment of eight helicopters and 350 extra soldiers to Mali as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, bringing total German strength there to around 1,000 soldiers.
However, MINUSMA has lacked equipment and resources, making a political settlement between Tuareg rebels and the government in Mali increasingly fragile and allowing Islamists and people traffickers to exploit a void in the north of the country.
(Additional reporting by John Irish, Ingrid Melander, Leigh Thomas and Adrian Croft; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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