AU summit overshadowed by Sahel attacks
NOUAKCHOTT - African leaders gathered in the Mauritanian capital on Monday for the final day of a summit overshadowed by security issues after jihadist rebels hammered two fragile Sahel states in successive attacks.
French President Emmanuel Macron, making an exceptional appearance at an African Union (AU) summit, was expected to discuss hurdles facing a five-nation French-backed anti-terror unit, the "G5 Sahel" force.
As the summit focusing on free trade, funding and corruption opened on Sunday, a bomb aimed at French soldiers in Mali's troubled north killed four civilians and injured over 20 people, including four soldiers.
In Niger, Boko Haram insurgents targeted a military postion in the southeast of the country, killing 10 soldiers -- a reminder of the peril that Nigeria's notorious jihadists pose to neighbouring countries.
On Friday, a suicide bombing hit the Mali headquarters of the G5 Sahel, fuelling concerns about its ability to tackle jihadist groups roaming the region.
It was the first attack on the headquarters of the five-nation force, which was set up with French backing in 2017 to fight jihadist insurgents and criminal groups in the vast and unstable Sahel region.
In total, four separate attacks killed 15 people in Mali in three days, as the vulnerable West African nation prepares to go to the polls on July 29.
The G5 Sahel leaders -- from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- met Sunday to prepare for talks with Macron.
"These attacks should strengthen our determination to fight terrorism to ensure our populations' security," Niger's president, Mahamadou Issoufou, said on the sidelines of the summit.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, hosting the gathering of more than 40 heads of state and government, said Friday's bombing "hit (at) the heart" of security in the Sahel and lashed out at a lack of international help.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed the attack in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar.
- 'UN doors closed' -
"It was a message sent by the terrorists at this precise moment when we are getting organised to stabilise and secure our region," Aziz told France 24 television.
"If the headquarters was attacked, it is because there are so many failings we need to fix if we want to bring stability to the Sahel."
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from the five nations but has faced funding problems and lack of equipment.
It is intended to operate alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled "tri-border" area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
Aziz said the G5 was a "sovereign initiative" of Sahel states that face not only security problems but drought, poverty, unemployment and trafficking.
- Free trade -
The string of attacks in the vast Sahel region hijacked an AU summit meant to focus on free trade, funding, corruption as well as the continent's other security crises.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who holds the presidency of the 55-nation AU, will make a call to promote free trade.
Currently, African countries only conduct about 16 percent of their business with each other, the smallest amount of intra-regional trade compared to Latin America, Asia, North America and Europe.
In March, 44 nations signed a pact in March to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) -- billed as the world's largest in terms of participating countries.
The fruit of two years of negotiations, the CFTA is one of the AU's flagship projects for greater African integration.
If all 55 AU members eventually sign up, it will create a bloc with a cumulative GDP of $2.5 trillion (two trillion euros) and cover a market of 1.2 billion people.
But two of the continent's economic heavyweights, South Africa and Nigeria are notable CFTA absentees.