By John Irish
NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - France's foreign minister said on Thursday that Paris backed efforts by West African states to boost security cooperation in their troubled Sahel region, including a plan to establish a 5,000-strong multinational force to take on Islamist fighters.
Speaking after a French soldier died in a clash with militants in Mali on Wednesday, Jean-Marc Ayrault said it was imperative that G5 Sahel states - Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger - build up their counter-terrorism capacity.
"The objective is for African countries to defend and protect themselves," he said after arriving in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott. "We know that we're starting from a long way off, but we have to help them in this. The heads of state know their responsibilities."
The Sahel region, a politically fragile area whose desert expanses stretch from Mauritania to Sudan, is home to an assortment of jihadist groups.
Former colonial power France intervened in 2012 to drive out al Qaeda-linked militants who had seized northern Mali.
It has since spread some 4,000 soldiers, known as the Barkhane force, across the region to hunt down Islamists while U.N. peacekeepers have also been deployed to Mali.
But Mali-based groups have continued to launch attacks across the region in the past 18 months and central Mali has seen a spike of violence that has spilled over its southern border into Burkina Faso.
To combat the growing menace, the G5 Sahel nations are seeking to ramp up collaboration along their porous borders and create a region-wide counter-terrorism force.
Ayrault said Paris was already providing training and equipment and undertaking mixed patrols along border areas.
"It will be a long-term project," he said.
A French diplomatic source said the aim was to eventually create a 5,000-troop strong reaction force similar to the multinational contingent fighting Nigeria's Boko Haram insurgency.
"The mission would cost several hundred million dollars as it would need to be properly equipped. It first needs to be rubber-stamped by the African Union and then the EU would be asked for financial aid," the source said.
Speaking to Reuters, Mauritanian Foreign Minister Isselkou Ould Ahmed Izid Bih said the attack that killed the French soldier on Wednesday, which occurred along Mali's border with Burkina Faso, showed the need for regional cooperation.
Ayrault, who is undertaking a two-day trip to the region with German counterpart Sigmar Gabriel, will travel to Gao in Mali on Friday to pay tribute to the soldier.
(Editing by Joe Bavier, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Alison Williams)