Rebel groups have been increasing their attacks in the vast area over the past months.
French forces deployed to the Barkhane Operation in the West African Sahel region will be increased from 4,500 to 5,100 soldiers, by the end of February, the French government said Sunday.
“This is a major effort for the French Armed Forces: most of the reinforcements will be deployed in the so-called “three borders” zone between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger,” Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a statement.
Rebel groups have been increasing their attacks in the vast area over the past months, targeting civilians and inflicting heavy losses to poorly trained and equipped local security forces. France itself lost 13 soldiers in November in an air collision.
The United Nations (U.N.) envoy for West Africa Mohamed Ibn Chambas said in January that the attacks have increased fivefold in the zone since 2016.
Ibn Chambas explained that violence is often intertwined with organized crime and competition between the different groups.
"The reinforcement should allow us to increase the pressure against the ISIS-GS. We will leave no space for those who want to destabilize the Sahel," Parly said referring to the ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) group in the Sahara.
"Another part of these reinforcements will be directly engaged within the G5 Sahel forces to accompany them in combat," she added.
The November accident and increasing criticism of the French intervention among West African public opinion, led French President Emmanuel Macron to review its Operation Barkhane. Along with the leaders of the G5 Sahel group, he announced in January - during a summit in the French southern city of Pau - a new plan to fight armed groups.
The increase in the number of troops is part of this new plan.
Paris said it was also expecting other European countries to follow its steps and send soldiers.
On the other hand, Parly’s announcement came after a visit she made to the United States where she tried to convince her counterpart Mark Esper to maintain the U.S. presence in the region.
Esper has not yet voiced his decision, but the head of U.S. Africa Command Stephen Townsend said that a withdrawal of U.S. troops “would not go in a good direction."
The security situation in the Sahel has been worsening after a Tuareg rebellion started in 2012, seizing much of northern Mali and declaring independence. Rebel groups who supported the separatists at first turned against them afterward and took control of several towns and regions.
France sent troops to Mali in January 2013 after the rebel groups’ advance started to threaten Malian capital Bamako.
Despite the French presence, armed groups have spread to the center of Mali, to western Niger and to the north and east of Burkina Faso.
Thousands of people have died, while hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes.
In a report released in July, U.N. experts said "the most striking international developments" during the first six months of 2019 included "the growing ambition and reach of terrorist groups in the Sahel and West Africa" where ISIL and al-Qaeda fighters are collaborating to destroy already fragile countries.
Areas of the Sahel that have seen the most fighting are severely underdeveloped. Armed groups have exploited poverty as well as religious and ethnic divisions to recruit fighters in a region that is severely underdeveloped.