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BRUSSELS (AP) — The impoverished West African country of Mali on Tuesday urged the European Union to step up support for the Sahel region amid a spate of extremist attacks, as France buried two officers killed during a hostage rescue mission.
"It's a race against time," Foreign Minister Tiebile Drame said, following attacks in central Mali and across the border in northern Burkina Faso. He called for action from "Europe and other countries in the world that have the means and feel concerned by the terrorist threat."
Speaking to reporters in Brussels after a meeting of EU and Sahel country government ministers, Drame said that "we need support. We need to speed up procedures. We need international mobilization in a concrete way."
Security has deteriorated in the Sahel over the past decade, with extremist attacks occurring frequently. Both fighters and people seeking better lives in Europe move easily across the region's long, porous borders.
Several groups linked to the Islamic State organization and al-Qaida are active in the region. In a rare video released late last month, Islamic State group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi congratulated "brothers" in Burkina Faso, Mali and other countries for pledging allegiance.
Once-peaceful Burkina Faso has been increasingly destabilized by jihadists from across the border in Mali. On Sunday unknown gunmen attacked a Catholic church during Mass, killing a priest and five worshippers.
Attacks have included the kidnapping of foreigners. The French special forces officers were killed Friday during an operation to free foreign hostages in Burkina Faso. They were part of a French military operation trying to root out Islamic extremists in the Sahel.
The region also includes conflict-torn Libya's neighbors Chad and Niger, as well as Mauritania further west.
"This is a situation that's getting worse and we must do something about it," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said.
The region is a transit hub and path for migrants trying to reach Europe, and the EU has earmarked around 8 billion euros ($9 billion) in development support for Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania for 2014-2020. Last year the EU and other donors raised more than 400 million euros to fund a regional counter-terror force.
The 5,000-strong force remains short of equipment and training. A branch of al-Qaida set off a car bomb at its headquarters in central Mali last year.
Reynders said the Europeans "want to see the very clear willingness of the Sahel countries to take charge of border control, the security aspects of all those pathways used by armed groups to get from one country to another."
He also said the EU must do more to bolster the regional force with military and police support.
Mali's Drame said many of the region's problems are exacerbated by the conflict in Libya.
"The misery of a country like Mali comes from Libya, from the collapse of Libya and the chaos there," he said. "We want the EU to step up action and coordinate policies to contribute to peace and stability in Libya. If not, all our efforts will be wasted."
Associated Press writer Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed.
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