Macron calls for greater 'political clarity' from Sahel allies


ABIDJAN - President Emmanuel Macron called for greater "political clarity" from Sahel countries hosting French troops fighting Islamist militants on Saturday, as he visited the troubled African region amid criticism of the former colonial power's role.

Macron arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to celebrate Christmas with French soldiers, but a renewed jihadist insurgency that has raised questions about the effectiveness of French and UN troops dominated the agenda.

"We need the political conditions to accompany the military work we do," he told troops from the 4,500-strong French contingent currently serving in the country.

"I cannot ask our soldiers to take risks to fight against terrorism... and on the other hand have public opinions of these same countries believing in untruths."

"France is not there with imperial intentions."

The leaders of the anti-jihadist G5 Sahel military alliance are due to attend a summit in France on January 13, when Macron said they would clarify the "political and strategic framework" of the operation after tensions emerged.

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Saturday told French television the G5 leaders -- Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad will deliver a message demanding a "respectable and respectful" relationship with the former colonial power.

In a separate speech to the French community in Ivory Coast Macron said 33 "terrorists" had been "neutralized" in neighboring Mali, a term a source close to the presidency said meant they had been killed.

French soldiers also released two Malian gendarmes being held by jihadists, Macron added.

The operation involving teams of commandos and attack helicopters in the flashpoint city of Mopti in central Mali came just weeks after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash as they hunted jihadists in the country's north.

Despite a French troop presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict that erupted in 2012 has engulfed the center of the country and spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

"This considerable success shows the commitment of our forces, the support that we bring to Mali, to the region and to our own security," Macron said.

"We have had losses, we also have victories this morning thanks to the commitment of our soldiers and Operation Barkhane," he said, referring to the France's military operation against Islamist militants in the Sahel.

Last month's crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France's operation.

The French armed forces ministry in a statement said the Mopti military operation targeted a camp where jihadists had gathered in a densely wooded area and fighting continued into the morning.

"Guided by a Reaper drone, a helicopter assault was carried out at night by dozens of commandos supported by Tiger helicopters," it said.

French forces captured a stash of heavy weaponry, four vehicles, including one mounted with an anti-aircraft canon, and motorbikes.

Away from weeks of strikes gripping France, Macron's personal chef had traveled with him to cook dinner for around 1,000 troops at the military base in Port-Bouet, near Abidjan's airport.

"We will keep up the fight against jihadist terrorists. We will continue to do so with our African partners and with our European and international partners," he said. "Because if we let the threat flourish, it will impact us too."

On Sunday, Macron will pay a flying visit for talks with President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, where jihadist attacks are frequent. -AFP