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West African leaders meet on extremism in the region

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — The heads of state from 15 countries in the West African economic bloc known as ECOWAS met Saturday to discuss the fight against Islamic extremism and the impact of the G5 Sahel Joint Force set up to combat its spread.

Leaders from West Africa have long been warning that extremism, which is ramping up in Burkina Faso with more brazen attacks, threatens the entire region, and that the G5 Sahel force needs wider spread support. Established in 2017, the force —with troops from Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Mali — has been plagued with funding problems.

Niger Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum said greater mobilization of resources is needed to combat extremism in the region. It's about "creating the conditions for greater mobilization on the part of ECOWAS member states in the fight against terrorism," he told RFI on the sidelines of the meeting in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso's capital.

He said the forces' resources need to be better managed, and other nations should be tapped who may have equipment like airplanes or helicopters that the Sahel force needs. He added there was also a greater need for intelligence and information sharing.

Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore stressed that both sustainable economies and military operations are needed to fight terrorism in the long run, and supported a new "Desert to Power" initiative by the African Development Bank in a summit Friday ahead of the ECOWAS meeting.

"To overcome terrorism in the Sahel, the operationalization of the strategy for the development and security of the G5 Sahel countries is extremely imperative and urgent. Therefore, the building of transport, energy, water and telecommunications infrastructure will help sustainable social and economic development," he said.

On Friday, the five heads of state from the Sahel endorsed the initiative to increase energy to their countries. "The energy deficit is a hindrance to the development of our states," Kabore said. "Energy production costs should be cheaper, accessible to people, and have an impact in sectors such as agriculture, health, education and security."

Despite increased international engagement in the Sahel, violence by Islamic extremists is growing in the region. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the "number of reported violent events linked to militant Islamic group activity in the Sahel has doubled every year since 2016, reaching 465 incidents in 2018."

Extremists have gained a larger foothold in Burkina Faso's north in the past few years, staging more attacks near its borders with Mali and Niger. Hundreds have been killed in the attacks and thousands have fled.

Leaders in these regions are calling for more international and regional support.

Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.

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