French military facing growing protests in Sahel

France's military involvement in the Sahel is encountering growing opposition in the region, with protests that were once isolated to urban centres spreading to rural areas, fanned by social media and anger at insecurity.

Protestors in Burkina Faso and Niger in November hampered a large French military supply convoy travelling from Ivory Coast to Mali.

The trucks, escorted by local forces, took more than a week to get through Burkina Faso, and several people were injured during demonstrations in the northern town of Kaya.

In western Niger, two people were killed in unclear circumstances on Saturday when the convoy attempted to escape protesters.

France's military has opened an investigation.

Experts say the affair appears to show that anti-French sentiment has spread in the Sahel, although the reasons for it are complex.

French mission

France, the former colonial power in the Sahel, has about 5,100 troops deployed across the region, helping to support countries where governments are weak and the armed forces poorly equipped.

The French military first intervened in 2013 to beat back an insurgency in northern Mali.

But the rebels regrouped and two years later spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger, two of the poorest countries in the world.

Village massacres, roadside bombs and ambushes have claimed thousands of lives and more than a million people have fled their homes.

On Sunday, four Burkinabe soldiers were killed in the north of the country, bringing the toll from two weeks of raids by suspected militants to at least 80.

A French diplomat, who declined to be named, said that many local people did not understand how militants could make such gains when French troops are present.

The situation has contributed to conspiracy theories alleging French support for militants, according to Bamako-based researcher Boubacar Haidara.

Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga recently accused France of training a "terrorist group" in the north of the country, in an interview with Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The fact that such rhetoric "comes from an authority as high as the prime minister gives it credibility," Haidara said.

Rumours proliferating on social media — which were also recounted by several protesters in Kaya — claimed the supply convoy was in fact carrying weapons for the militants.

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