BY YACOUBA OMAR
GAO, Mali (AP) — On his first official trip outside Europe, new French President Emmanuel Macron is highlighting his determination to crush extremism with a visit to French-led military forces combating jihadist groups in West Africa.
Macron was greeted Friday by Malian counterpart Ibrahim Boubacar Keita at an air base in the eastern city of Gao. The two heads of state reviewed the troops and were expected to give a joint news conference following their meeting.
During his visit, Macron will also be briefed on Operation Barkhane, France’s largest overseas military mission, with about 4,000 soldiers in Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Gao is home of the permanent French military base in Mali, with 1,600 troops.
Macron repeatedly pledged ahead of the May 7 election that fighting terror would be his priority, after multiple attacks in France since 2015 that killed more than 230 people.
Most of the West African extremist groups France is combating trace their origins to al-Qaida’s North Africa branch.
Gao is where a suicide attack on a Malian army camp killed more than 75 people in January. That attack, claimed by the al-Qaida-linked al-Mourabitoun extremist group, happened just days after former French president Francois Hollande visited the city.
The victims were soldiers and former fighters trying to stabilize the region after a 2015 agreement with the government. The attack was a major blow to peace efforts in northern Mali, where rival groups have been vying for control or outright independence.
“I don’t think Macron’s arrival will change anything to our daily life,” Ousmane Maiga, a resident of Gao, told The Associated Press. “Macron comes to see the French soldiers but not us.”
Another resident, Mohamed Gaiga, said he wants Macron “to put an end to the massacre of Malians. France has the military and political power to bring back peace in Mali, but we observe that even groups that signed the peace agreement are still fighting each other.”
Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet and John Leicester in Paris and Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed.
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