BRUSSELS – European Union leaders meet Friday with counterparts from West Africa in a show of support for the impoverished Sahel region that has fallen prey to extremists and is a key transit point for migrants heading to Europe.
The meeting in Brussels is meant as a show of political and financial support for the five nations pursuing a new regional counterterror force: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Around 30 leaders are attending, plus senior officials from the United States, Japan, Norway and Morocco.
Some are likely to pledge funds for the G5 Sahel security force launched a year ago. It joins a number of security efforts that include France's largest overseas military operation, a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and a U.S. presence of about 800 troops in Niger, where four soldiers were killed in an October ambush.
Security has deteriorated in the vast Sahel since 2011, with attacks by a variety of extremist groups a growing occurrence. Both extremist fighters and people seeking better lives in Europe move through the long, porous borders.
More than 1,100 people have been killed in the region since 2014, nearly 400 of them last year. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is considered the most active of around eight extremists groups operating there.
The 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force is seeking more than 400 million euros ($500 million) for its mission along mostly desert borders, including near Libya, the main jumping-off point for migrants bound for Italy.
Around 250 million euros has been offered so far, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia, some 90 million euros from the EU and its member countries and $60 million from the U.S.
But the EU insists it's not just about security. Brussels says political help and development assistance are vital in a region wracked by extreme poverty, food shortages and health crises and where almost 5 million people have been forced from their homes.
The EU is investing more than 8 billion euros in development aid in the Sahel for 2014-2020. Part of that is self-interest as the EU seeks to ease its refugee burden by tackling the root causes of migration.
While migrant arrivals through Libya have dropped, more than 120,000 people still left there last year. Many die in the grueling crossing of the Sahel and Sahara before they can even take their chances in often overcrowded traffickers' boats on the Mediterranean.