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German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 12, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

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BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Monday for a new approach to development in Africa, saying that big industrialised countries should be more open to transferring weapons to help African countries battle militant groups.

Merkel, who has made ties with Africa a centrepiece of Germany's G20 presidency, said several African leaders had complained that they were expected to battle militancy without receiving significant military aid from the West.

"For many years, we felt good when we didn't focus on military equipment ... But we have to be honest - only where security is ensured can development take place," Merkel said at the opening of a Group of 20 conference on Africa in Berlin.

Merkel also lauded the courage of African countries that were actively fighting Islamist militants in Mali and neighbouring countries. Germany would support a French push for the U.N. Security Council to authorise a West African force to combat terrorism and trafficking in the Sahel region, she said.

Merkel's comments come amid growing pressure from the United States on Germany and other European countries to increase their own military spending to meet NATO targets.

Germany and France are working on a proposal to use European Union funding to help back the African military effort in the Sahel region.

Arms sales remain a sensitive topic in Germany given its World War Two history, and German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democratic junior partners in Merkel's right-centre coalition, has promised more restrictive export licensing, especially of light arms.

German arms sales did drop slightly in 2017, but remained at second highest levels on record since 1990.

"I also find it very courageous that some countries are taking responsibility into their own hands and fighting terrorism in Mali and neighbouring countries," Merkel said, endorsing the French drive for a U.N. mandate.

Merkel's statement puts her at odds with the United States, which diplomats say is wary of the French push because it did not want the world body to fund the effort.

The German leader also sketched out plans for a G20 "Compact with Africa" that moves away from more paternalistic notions of development aid of the past, looking instead at opportunities to partner with African countries, many of which are seeing booming growth rates.

"We need a sustainable, inclusive economic development for the whole world," she said, adding that economic gains in Africa - where the population is expected to double by 2050 - were also in the interest of Europe, where a growing number of African migrants are seeking refuge.

"We need an initiative that does not talk about Africa, but with Africa," she said.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Susan Fenton)

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