Pentagon chief tells French counterpart U.S. supports Sahel mission


FILE PHOTO: A French soldier mans a machine gun in the door of a NH 90 Caiman military helicopter during Operation Barkhane over Ndaki, Mali, July 29, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - France has Washington's continued support for counterterrorism efforts in Africa's Sahel region, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told his French counterpart in a phone call on Monday.

France has about 5,000 troops in the Sahel region of West Africa to fight Islamist militants and receives logistical support from the United States. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in June that France was reducing its presence in the region.

Austin's conversation with French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly comes as the United States is seeking to repair relations with Paris after Washington announced on Sept. 15 a security partnership with Australia and Britain that sunk a major defense contract for a French submarine builder.

"Secretary Austin applauded French leadership in countering terrorism in the region and assured her of continued U.S. support for this important mission," the Pentagon said in a statement.

Washington has committed to stepping up its support for counterterrorism operations conducted by European states in the Sahel, according to a joint statement following a fence-mending call last week between U.S. President Joe Biden and Macron.

In his call with Parly, Austin also expressed his condolences for the death of French soldier Maxime Blasco, who was killed last week in a clash with militants in Mali.

More than 50 French soldiers have died in the region since Paris deployed a counterterrorism force in 2013.

(Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

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