French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Friday world powers must tackle instability in Libya but he stopped short of openly backing the military intervention called for by regional powers in the Sahel.
Speaking shortly after meeting Le Drian in Niamey, Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, reiterated calls for an international military intervention in Libya, a position supported by several other African leaders concerned about the impact of the country’s lawlessness on the region.
The leaders of Mali and Senegal have called for action by the West in Libya to end to chaos they say stems from the 2011 intervention that helped oust Libya’s longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi.
While two rival governments compete for legitimacy in Tripoli, Libya’s desert south has become a stronghold for armed groups, some with links to al Qaeda.
“Libya is chaos today and it is a breeding ground for terrorists that threaten the stability of Niger and, further afield, France,” Le Drian said in Niamey.
“We think that the moment has come to ensure that the international community tackles the Libyan problem. I think this is also what President Issoufou believes,” he said.
Le Drian had on Thursday visited a French military base at Madama, a remote fortress town at a crossroads of desert trade routes in northern Niger, near Libya’s border.
Underscoring the scale of the task faced by French troops, the base is some 10 days’ drive from Niger’s capital and is battered by winds of up to 120 kilometers (75 miles) per hour.
Le Drian said the location of the Madama deployment of some 200 men was key as it would allow troops to intervene in Niger quickly and efficiently, highlighting how France’s intervention against Islamists in Mali in 2013 has mutated into a broader, regional mission to hunt down Islamists across the Sahel.
However, France has so far ruled out a direct military action in Libya and Le Drian said nothing to change that position during a trip to visit some of the 3,200 troops in the region this week.
Issoufou said the Sahel was “paying the price” for the political mess left behind after NATO military action helped remove Gaddafi and direct Western action was needed to fix the situation.
“I don’t see how armed terrorist militias are going to bring about reconciliation in Libya,” he said.