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UNITED NATIONS — The U.N.’s top political official for Africa called Mali’s decision to withdraw from the Sahel regional counterterrorism force “unfortunate and regrettable” Wednesday, especially at a time of increasing terrorist activity and insecurity.

Assistant Secretary-General Martha Pobee told the U.N. Security Council that this week’s decision by Mali’s ruling junta to leave the force “is most certainly a step back for the Sahel.”

The G5 Sahel force was created in 2014 by Mali and the neighboring West African states of Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad to counter terrorism in the Sahel, but from the start it was beset by financial and political problems and it didn’t deploy troops until 2017.

Nonetheless, Pobee said that since last November the force has carried out operations in all three of its sectors without the participation of Malian battalions.

“How Mali’s decision to leave the G5 and its joint force will further impact the organization and dynamics in the region remains to be seen,” she said.

Pobee noted that for the last five years, the international community, donors and partners “have struggled to reach consensus on the most effective support mechanism for a collective security response in the Sahel,” which has proven to be “a significant obstacle” for operating the G5 force.

“We need innovative approaches in the face of the constantly evolving tactics of terrorist groups, whose influence keeps expanding,” she said.

While all key players recognize that “the terrorist onslaught in the Sahel constitutes a slow-burning mortal threat to international peace and security,” the lack of consensus persists, Pobee said.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the chair of the African Union have agreed to carry out a joint strategic assessment “of security and governance initiatives in the Sahel,” she said. The objective is “to strengthen support to the G5 Sahel, its joint force and other security and governance initiatives in the region,” she said.

U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills said the United States is “alarmed by rising violent extremism, terrorist attacks, inter-communal violence, growing food insecurity and democratic backsliding in the Sahel.” He called challenges in the region “acute,” with civilian deaths continuing to mount along with the number of people internally displaced and fleeing across borders.

Mills pointed to three of the G5 governments — Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali — that “currently are neither democratically elected nor civilian-led” and have no clear timelines to return to constitutional order via free and fair elections.

He expressed regret that Mali withdrew from the G5 Sahel, saying it further isolates the country from the force’s important work and from the region.

The U.S., UK and France expressed concern about what Mills called “the newest variable in regional instability — the Russian-backed Wagner Group.” whose mercenaries operate in Mali and Central African Republic and have been accused of human rights violations.

French Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere called the situation in the Sahel “very alarming,” pointing to millions of people without enough food and civilians targeted by terrorist groups. He also noted extremists are extending their threats to eastern Senegal and to Gulf of Guinea countries, including Togo, which was hit by a terrorist attack last week.

De Riviere said Mali’s withdrawal from the G5 force weakens “the regional security architecture.” He added that “we need a plan to improve the situation in the Sahel region … and we haven’t seen one yet.”

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Anna Evstigneeva, agreed that terrorist activity and inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts in the Sahel have not abated.

She blamed Mali’s decision on pressure by Western nations, especially France.

“In light of this fact, Mali’s decision to quite G5 Sahel, caused by such confrontational behavior of its neighbors, looks rather logical,” Evstigneeva said.

Many neighboring states object to Mali’s ruling junta, which seized power in August 2020. In April the junta leaders said a transition to civilian, democratic rule would take at least two years.

Evstigneeva said Russia is committed to enhancing the capacity of armed forces in the region.

At this time, she said, servicemen from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are completing courses at universities of the Russian Ministry of Defense while members of the Malian police are being trained at educational facilities of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.

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