Leaders from five West African countries and their ally France meet Tuesday to confer over their troubled efforts to stem a jihadist offensive unfolding in the Sahel.
Meeting in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, presidents will take stock nearly six months after rebooting their campaign in Pau, southwestern France.
Since then, the jihadists have continued to carry out almost daily attacks, although they have also lost a key leader and two rebel groups are said to be at odds.
French President Emmanuel Macron hosted the summit in January to secure a public commitment from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger at a time of deepening concern in France after it lost 13 troops in a helicopter crash.
The insurgency kicked off in northern Mali in 2012, during a rebellion by Touareg separatists that was later overtaken by the jihadists.
Despite thousands of UN and French troops, the conflict spread to central Mali, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, stirring feuds between ethnic groups and triggering fears for states farther south.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes and the economies of the three countries, already among the poorest in the world, have been grievously damaged.
– ‘Three-border’ region –
Macron will make a one-day round trip to Mauritania for the summit.
The talks are expected to last only a few hours, but they will also mark the first time that Sahel allies have gathered since the coronavirus pandemic crimped meetings in person.
One priority will be to assess affairs in the “three-border region,” a hotspot of jihadism where the frontiers of Burkina, Niger and Mali converge.
France, which added 500 troops to its Sahel mission after Pau, is co-leading the campaign in this region, targeting an Islamic State-affiliated group led by Abou Walid al-Sahraoui.
Earlier this month, French forces in northern Mali, helped by a US drone, killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
And in a new development, jihadists respectively linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State have clashed several times since the start of the year in Mali and Burkina, after long steering clear of one another, according to security experts.
Despite this, problems in the Sahel run deep.
Local armies are poorly equipped and under-funded, rights groups say troops are to blame for hundreds of killings and other abuses of civilians, and in some areas the presence of government has evaporated.
Staunch French ally Chad has yet to fulfil a promise to send troops to the three-border region, and a much-trumpeted initiative to create a joint 5,000-man G5 Sahel force is making poor progress.
In Mali, meanwhile, anger at insecurity has fuelled discontent over coronavirus restrictions and the outcome of elections, creating a political crisis for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Both Burkina and Niger are due to hold presidential elections by year’s end, fuelling concerns about the outcome.