By Humeyra Pamuk
ROME (Reuters) – Alarmed by the spread of Islamic State across Africa, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said on Monday he wanted to set up an international task force to counter the threat.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking after a meeting in Italy aimed at renewing efforts to combat the Islamist militants, said he supported the Italian initiative.
Islamic State affiliates have claimed gains in recent weeks in Nigeria, the Sahel, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to offset significant setbacks in the Middle East, where the group initially gained prominence.
“With the support of the USA and many other partners, I proposed the establishment of an Africa task force to identify and stop IS-related terrorist threats on the continent,” Di Maio told reporters, standing alongside Blinken.
He said African countries that were not initially part of the anti-Islamic State coalition, including Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mozambique, had been invited to Monday’s gathering — the first in-person meeting of the alliance for two years.
The coalition said in a statement that it was also welcoming new members to the group — Central African Republic, Congo, Mauritania and Yemen — to join the 78 countries and five organisations that already belong to it.
Di Maio did not give further details of what the proposed Africa task force would do.
However, it would likely look to build on work carried out by French forces in the Sahel region since 2013. President Emmanuel Macron said this month France’s operation would come to an end with troops now operating as part of broader international efforts in the region.
Macron said then details of the changes would be finalised by the end of June after consultations with the United States, European states involved in the area and the five Sahel countries – Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Blinken and Di Maio urged the alliance not to lower its guard against Islamic State despite the fact the militants had lost much of their territories in Iraq and Syria.
“Let me just say very clearly that we strongly support Italy’s initiative to make sure that the coalition against Daesh (IS) focuses its expertise on Africa, while keeping our eye closely on Syria and Iraq,” Blinken said.
“With all of the reasons that we just cited, we decided this is of significant importance, and I think we heard a strong consensus today on the part of our coalition partners to do just that,” he added.
The U.S. top diplomat also urged countries to take back some 10,000 Islamic State fighters held in detention in camps run by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), saying the situation was “untenable”.
“It just can’t persist indefinitely. The United States continues to urge countries of origin, including coalition partners, to repatriate, rehabilitate, and where applicable, prosecute their citizens,” he said in opening remarks to the meeting.
(Additional reporting by Angelo Amante and Gavin Jones; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alison Williams)