By Boureima Balima
NIAMEY (Reuters) – Niger needs a French military buffer, training and weapons as it continues to strengthen its army to tackle Islamist insurgents, Defence Minister Alkassoum Indatou said on Friday.
He was speaking during a joint news conference in Niamey after a meeting with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and Army Minister Sebastien Lecornu.
The French ministers were visiting as France plans to redefine its strategy to continue fighting militants in the region, while completing its troops withdrawal from Niger’s neighbour, Mali.
Lecornu told the news conference that French and Niger army chiefs have been tasked to make proposals to the heads of state of both countries by the autumn so that decisions on the new Sahel strategy will be made by the end of the year.
Indatou said Niger had made progress in rebuilding its army but it was a long way from defending itself as it is confronting insurgents in several areas on its borders with seven countries, with only one of the frontiers relatively stable.
The vast nation, nearly twice the size of France, borders Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Libya and Algeria.
“When the insurgency started, we had about 10,000 soldiers and we could not even provide weapons for each man,” Indatou said.
“We need a barrier force that will enable us to strengthen our army to a level where we are able to defend ourself without any external help,” Indatou said.
Niger has emerged as the lynchpin in the fight against jihadist linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in West Africa after relations between Mali and its partners deteriorated, prompting France and other European powers to withdraw their troops.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in May promised Niger, which also hosts some German troops, long-term military and financial support to fight Islamist insurgents.
Niger will become the hub for French troops, with some 1,000 soldiers based in the capital Niamey with fighter jets, drones and helicopters. Some 300-400 would be dispatched for special operations with Niger troops in the border regions with Burkina and Mali, French officials told reporters in a briefing.
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(Additional reporting by John Irish; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Alison Williams)