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France ready to strengthen force in Sahel fighting Islamists - Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron, seen in this still image taken from video, sits with French military forces during a visit with troops who participate in the Operation Barkhane in Niamey, Niger, late December 22, 2017. REUTERS/via Reuters TV


PARIS (Reuters) - President Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday France stood ready if needed to strengthen its military force fighting alongside African troops against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel.

France has been seeking to eventually withdraw from the poorly policed scrublands of the Sahel region - which abuts the Sahara to the north and has become a recruiting and training ground for Islamist militants - with the help of a new regional African force.

The G5 Sahel, which began official operations in November, is made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania that will patrol the region in collaboration with 4,000 French troops deployed there since intervening in 2013 to quell an insurgency in northern Mali.

But Macron said on a visit to the Niger capital Niamey that the Sahel would remain a focus for the French army, should it be required in the future.

"France is ready, not only to maintain, but if necessary to strengthen its engagement in the region because the fight against terrorism in the Sahel is essential, in my opinion," he said during a joint news conference with his Nigerien counterpart Mahamoudou Issoufou.

"The fight is not won today ... it is essential not only to maintain but to further improve our agility on the ground, to innovate more and to focus our priorities on the regions identified as the most vulnerable," he added.

Speaking during his visit to Niger, Macron also announced an additional 10 million euros to help educate girls, one of the priorities promoted by President Issoufou to curb migration.

This sum is on top of 15 million euros already invested by France to help education in Niger. Paris pledged in mid-December to spend 400 million euros over 2017-2021 to support Niamey.

(Reporting by Sophie Louet and Maya Nikolaeva in Paris, Edward McAllister in Dakar; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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