PARIS - France will broaden its military presence in Africa's turbulent Sahel region with specialized new outposts to better fight the terror threat from extremist groups such as al-Qaida, the defense minister said Tuesday.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is moving toward a regional counterterrorism approach in former French colonies such as Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. French troops largely ousted al-Qaida-linked militants from northern Mali last year.
The minister expects to detail the initiative to U.S. officials during a trip to Washington this week. France has worked closely with U.S. forces to try to fight extremism in Africa.
The new plan was presented to President Francois Hollande late last month and not yet publicly announced. Le Drian said the idea is to bring a regional approach to fighting terrorism, and will involve the creation of specialized posts such as for logistics, intelligence-gathering and fighter planes.
"We are reorganizing our deployment in Africa to be more reactive about potential crises," he said over croissants in his ministry dining room, adorned with a colorful tapestry titled "The Tree of Joy" on the wall. "We will have the same number of soldiers - 3,000 in the Sahel region - but they will be organized differently."
"We are going to reinforce Abidjan an as an entry point, a logistical support post," Le Drian said of Ivory Coast's commercial capital. "And then we'll boost the intervention capacity on each of the different sites."
Under the plan, Chad's capital, N'Djamena, is to be the center for France's air power in the region and a base for Rafale and Mirage fighters. One site in Niamey, Niger's capital, will be equipped with drones such as French-made Harfang and - as of its first official flight on Monday - a U.S.-made Reaper surveillance drone, which Le Drian helped authorize France to buy.
The new approach follows up on strategic recommendations laid out in last year's French "white paper" - a review of the nation's security and defense operations - that put a new focus on Africa.
Le Drian plans to meet with officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and plans a speech at a Washington think tank, his office said.
The Obama administration backed France's intervention in Mali, holding it up as an example of situations where America's allies can take lead roles in helping less developed countries fight against al-Qaida and other extremists without the need for the U.S. to put boots on the ground.