PARIS – French troops are still in Mali a year and a half after they were sent there for a targeted operation against extremists. And instead of leaving, they're about to expand their mission to fighting terrorism from the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean.
That's because the region's terrorist problem hasn't gone away: French troops merely dispersed Mali's al-Qaida-linked militants, and their potential ties with Nigerian militant group Boko Haram are of increasing concern to the French government.
The redeployment of 3,000 French troops in five of its former colonies across northwest Africa is expected to become official in the coming days. Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian arrived Wednesday in Mali, and President Francois Hollande is starting a three-day visit to Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad on Thursday.
Africans have mixed feelings about French soldiers setting up camp long-term. Some in Mali see it as a neo-colonial power grab, while others feel that the French are only extending the mission because they failed to finish the job they started in January 2013.
"A sovereign country should not accept the presence of foreign troops to assure its security. France took advantage of the weakness of our defense system to set itself up again in our country, after it was chased out in 1960 by the Malian people," said Bassirou Guindo, a Bamako vendor.
The new operation — codenamed "Barkhane" after a crescent-shaped dune in Sahara desert — will involve Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
While Hollande said this week that the original Mali operation, called Serval, "has been perfectly accomplished," sporadic violence continues. A French soldier was killed Monday by a suicide attack while taking part in a reconnaissance mission in northern Mali. And deadly violence has rocked the north in recent months as Tuareg separatists push back against central authority.
"There are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone," Le Drian said Sunday on Europe 1 radio. The shifting strategy is aimed at preventing the "highway" across the region now used for drug and weapons trafficking "from becoming a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves. It's our security which is at stake," he said. French authorities say al-Qaida's North Africa branch, with fighters scattered around the region, is the main threat to French targets at home and around the world.
The number of soldiers in the region will remain roughly the same, with some 1,000 of them staying in northern Mali. The operation will have its headquarters in the Chadian capital of N'Djamena.
A senior French presidential aide said the shift "will allow us to have more flexibility so that we can take into account the situation in each country and deploy reinforcements where it is necessary." The aide spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation is not officially launched yet.
The force will count 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 10 transport planes, 6 fighter jets and 3 drones, according to the defense ministry.
Hollande's visit to Niger and Chad will focus on terrorism issues while his stop in Ivory Coast will be dedicated to economy. The French president will visit the French air base of Niger's capital Niamey, where unmanned aircraft are based, including two U.S.-made Reaper surveillance drones. He will also visit the French military base of Kossei in Chad.
The French government deflects accusations of neo-colonialism by insisting on the involvement of African countries in their own security, through participation in U.N. or international peacekeeping missions in Mali and Central African Republic.
Malian Defense Ministry adviser Lt. Col. Diarran Kone said a defense treaty being signed during Le Drian's visit is aimed in part at putting a legal structure around the French presence. But he acknowledges frustration and misunderstanding among the Malian population about the French role.
Ordinary people are blunt about their views.
"The presence of the French troops is not a good thing," said Fanta Kamate, a 21-year-old student in Bamako. "They come to Mali only for their own interests."
Ahmed contributed from Bamako, Mali.