File Photo: French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian January 14, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian paid a surprise visit to northern Niger Thursday, to visit a base being built to combat the growing flow of weapons and jihadists from neighbouring Libya.
Le Drian travelled from Chad to Madama, a desert outpost about 100 kilometres from Libya, where he saw in the New Year with troops at a French base.
Madama is situated on the route used by jihadists and arms smugglers in southern Libya to reach northern Mali and Niger.
Le Drian said his visit demonstrated France's "determination... against the jihadists, terrorism and those who want to transform this ancient caravan route into a route of violence and trafficking".
In an address to French soldiers in Chad's capital N'Djamena the previous day, Le Drian called on the international community to act to prevent Libya from becoming a "sanctuary for terrorists."
Three years after dictator Moamer Kadhafi was toppled and killed in a NATO-backed revolt, Libya is awash with weapons and powerful militias, and run by rival governments and parliaments.
Questioned about the possibility of another military intervention in Libya, as some neighbours including Chad are calling for, Le Drian insisted on the need for a political solution.
"We first have to find a global roadmap on Libya," he said.
Madama will serve as a forward base for French counterterrorist operations in the Sahel.
The French military in 2013 routed radical Islamist groups from large swathes of northern Mali. Then in August last year, the Malian operation gave way to a wider, regional counter-terrorism drive dubbed Operation Barkhane.
A total of 3,000 troops are deployed across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to track and combat Islamist militants, backed by fighter aircraft, helicopters and drones.
In October, French soldiers in northern Niger intercepted a convoy of vehicles carrying three tonnes of weapons destined for Mali, including Russian shoulder-fired missiles and several hundred anti-tank rockets.
Within Mali, meanwhile, insurgent groups continue to mount attacks on local and international forces.
On Wednesday, a camp used by Malian, French and UN forces in the remote northeastern town of Tessalit near Algeria came under attack for a second time this week, a French military source said.
Wednesday also saw clashes between armed groups around the historic town of Timbuktu, an African military source in northern Mali told AFP. The situation in the area was still tense Thursday, the source said.
In Tessalit, four rockets were fired towards the camp without causing injuries, the French source said.
The Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for a similar assault on the camp Monday, which also caused no injuries.
Ansar Dine is one of the three insurgent groups which were targeted by the French intervention in Mali.