French military aircraft are carrying out surveillance missions to help countries bordering Nigeria tackle Boko Haram militants, officials said on Tuesday, amid efforts by African countries to coordinate a response to the threat posed by the group.
The African Union (AU) has authorised a force of 7,500 troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin to fight the militants. It is expected to seek a United Nations Security Council mandate, which could also include logistical support from other countries.
“Our air force is carrying out reconnaissance missions, but not over Nigeria,” said a French defence ministry source. “Our support is limited to neighbouring countries such as Chad and Niger.”
The source added intelligence was being given to Chadian forces currently fighting Boko Haram on the Cameroon and Nigeria border region.
Speaking at a ceremony on Tuesday marking the accidental death of nine French airmen in Spain last month, French President Francois Hollande had earlier said aircraft were currently operating over Nigeria.
Clarifying Hollande’s comments, the presidential palace said French planes were not flying over Nigeria, but that France was “co-operating in the fight against Boko Haram”.
Hollande said in May that Rafale fighter jets would be used for reconnaissance missions to help find some 200 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram.
Since then there has been no official comment on any French operations in the country.
France has headquartered its 3 200-strong Sahel counter-insurgency force, Barkhane, in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, some 50km from the Nigerian border. It has fighter jets based there and in Niger, where it also has surveillance drones.
Paris has ruled out direct military involvement for now, but said it can play a role in easing tensions and instigating dialogue between its three former colonies – Chad, Niger and Cameroon – and anglophone Nigeria.
Chad and Cameroon have stepped up troop deployments to fight the militants and on 31 Jan Chad’s army said it bombarded Boko Haram militants two days after their troops drove Boko Haram fighters from a northern Nigeria border town.
“France is in D’Djamena. We have the capacity to do surveillance and provide intelligence,” a French diplomatic source said.”Our job is to put some oil in the cogs between Nigeria and its neighbours.”