Paris (CNSNews.com) – The importance of the presence of French troops in the Sahel region has been underlined by a series of recent deadly attacks targeting Christians in Burkina Faso, one of five countries where the French counter-jihadist mission is taking place.
Last Sunday, 24 worshipers were killed when terrorists attacked a Protestant church in the north of the country, the poorest in the region of Western/Central Africa known as the Sahel.
The regional governor, Colonel Salfo Kaboré, said armed jihadists identified, isolated and shot the worshippers. Apart from those killed, which included the pastor, 18 people were injured or abducted, he said, without specifying how many were missing.
Less than a week earlier, jihadists kidnapped seven people in the house of a Christian minister in eastern Burkina Faso, near the border with Niger. Three days later, the minister and four of the others were found dead nearby, according to local government officials. The remaining two, both women, were found unharmed.
And last December, 14 Christians were killed in a jihadist attack on another church in the country.
Christians in Burkina Faso have come under attack for four years. Several Muslim imams have also been assassinated by jihadists in the north.
France in 2013 launched in Operation Barkhane, a mission aimed at countering ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram in the region. More than 4,500 French soldiers are currently deployed in the five countries – Niger, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged during a meeting early this year with the presidents of the five countries to keep his troops in the area as long as necessary because the insecure situation there.
He did so after asking the five whether they were in favor of the ongoing troop presence, and receiving a positive response.
Some politicians in Burkina Faso and Mali in particular have come out in opposition to the mission.
Last month around 1,000 people demonstrated in Mali’s capital, Bamako, against the French presence, with some members of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s ruling party among the protestors. In Burkina Faso, a small demonstration took place in the capital, Ouagadougou, on January 13.
Macron has been calling on European and NATO allies to help Sahel countries’ militaries fight against the terrorists, but so far without success.
U.S. officials have indicated that American troops in the region may be withdrawn. Speaking on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference at the weekend, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had engaged with his French counterpart, Florence Parly, about the issue for months now.
“I give the French credit for what they’ve done in Africa, particularly the Sahel,” he said. “They’ve been real leaders. They've been reaching out aggressively to get more European partners on board with mixed success. And I fully support that effort.”
There are reportedly some 6,000 U.S. troops stationed in Africa, with several hundred in the region in question. Esper spoke of his recently-announced decision to deploy a security force assistance brigade to Africa, saying the SFAB “can do train-and-assist better than anybody else.”
In turn, that move allows him to bring back to the U.S. elements of an infantry brigade from the 101st Airborne Division, “so they can go back and get ready, prepare, and focus on their [National Defense Strategy] mission.”
Esper said it would be good if more European troops would join France in the fight – which is what Macron has been pushing for since last November, when 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash during an operation against jihadists.
During his summit with the five African leaders, Macron called on President Trump not to pull U.S. troops from Africa, saying the terrorists were still very active.
During a visit to Senegal early this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was in favor of a collective” approach with U.S. allies, when it comes to troop deployments against jihadist insurgents in Africa.
“We have an obligation to get security right here, in the region. It’s what will permit economic growth and we’re determined to do that.”
Pompeo said he had no announcement to make with regard to U.S. troop drawdowns in the region.