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France to Boost Military Support in Ivory Coast: Defense Minister

Ivorian Defense Minister Tene Birahima Ouattara (L) welcomes French Minister of the Armed Forces Sebastien Lecornu (L) at the presidential palace in Abidjan on Febuary 20, 2023.

France's defense minister pledged on Monday to boost military support to Ivory Coast, as Paris adjusts its strategy in West Africa after neighboring Burkina Faso ordered French troops to leave and vowed to curb a worsening Islamist insurgency solo.

During an official visit to the Ivorian commercial capital Abidjan, the French minister, Sebastien Lecornu, declined to comment on Burkina Faso's decision to end military operations with France even as he re-emphasized France's commitment to engagement with security issues in West Africa, where the Islamist insurgency is spreading.

"We will strengthen cooperation with Ivory Coast in terms of training and equipment because it is an important country for us," he told reporters.

Burkina Faso said on Sunday France's military operations on its soil had officially ended - marking the start of a new chapter in the Sahel region's battle with Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.

The two jihadist groups have taken over swathes of land and displaced millions of people in Burkina, Mali and Niger.

It is not clear how the Burkinabe authorities plan to make up for the departure of some 400 French special forces from its territory, which saw the highest number of Islamist attacks in the Sahel last year with around 3,600 people killed, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS).

Underscoring the insecurity, the Burkinabe army on Monday said at least 51 soldiers had been killed in an ambush the previous week - one of the heaviest death tolls in a single attack on Burkinabe forces in recent memory.

"Ivory Coast and Niger can take the opportunity to position themselves as alternatives in order to be the new countries at the heart of the Western and French presence in the counter-terrorism fight," Ivorian historian and defense analyst Arthur Banga said.

The security crisis has spurred coups in Burkina Faso and neighboring Mali, where military juntas have vowed to curb the violence and look beyond their traditional Western and regional allies for support.

France's departure from Burkina follows its withdrawal of troops from Mali last year after the authorities there started working with Russian military contractors.

Burkina Faso has denied an allegation that Russian mercenaries are in the country, but its prime minister in December said it would welcome Russia's help in its fight against the insurgents.

The countries' rejection of French military help could allow other states in the region to put themselves forward as more reliable partners to Western powers.

France has not confirmed where it will redeploy the troops, but French defense and diplomatic sources said in January the special forces could be moved to Niger, where a large contingent of French and European forces are now based. Paris also has a large military presence in Chad.