US plans Sahel envoy, fearing escalation

French soldiers search for explosives during the Barkhane operation in northern Burkina Faso in November 2019 (AFP Photo/MICHELE CATTANI)

Washington (AFP) - The United States is planning to appoint a special envoy for the Sahel crisis amid fears that the jihadist threat is spreading, a senior official said Tuesday.

"That is one area where the situation is getting much worse by the day," said Tibor Nagy, the top US diplomat for Africa.

"We are definitely looking at having a special envoy for the Sahel," he said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"There are certain situations that are so complicated and require so much coordination that a special envoy makes sense," he said, without naming an individual or timeframe for an appointment.

Thousands of civilians and hundreds of soldiers have died and more than one million people have been displaced in a jihadist conflict that erupted in 2012 in northern Mali and has spread to its neighbors.

Nagy voiced concern about the "potential for link-ups" between extremists in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin -- the convergence of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria -- where a group affiliated with the so-called Islamic State has been stepping up a campaign.

"It is a monumental effort, but it also requires very close coordination," Nagy said of the campaigns against the militants.

France has deployed 5,100 soldiers in Operation Barkhane to roll back jihadists and has repeatedly told the United States that the situation is urgent.

The Pentagon nonetheless is looking at cutting African operations as part of a refocus against China and Russia, prompting French warnings that the US move would hamper international efforts against extremism.

Nagy said the State Department was not curbing its involvement.

"We are definitely not pulling back in the Sahel," he said.