West African neighbors pledge to support Mali

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By KRISTA LARSON, Associated Press

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — West African leaders pledged their support Friday to Mali's newly elected president as the country emerging from months of war and rebellion faces an uptick in attacks blamed on the jihadists forced from power.

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara, who currently chairs the 15-nation regional bloc known as ECOWAS, praised Mali's new president for his efforts at reconciliation, but warned of the challenges still ahead.

"The fight against terrorism in the Sahel is not yet over," Ouattara said.

The future of Mali was front and center at Friday's ECOWAS summit, the first to be attended by new Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Regional leaders congratulated his victory and also expressed their condolences for this week's deaths of two peacekeepers guarding a checkpoint in northern Mali. Assailants killed two Chadians and wounded nine other soldiers and civilians in a suicide attack.

In their closing statement, West African leaders called on the international community and troop-contributing countries to further reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping mission now trying to restore stability across northern Mali.

West African countries along with Chad already have contributed thousands of troops to the French-led military intervention that ousted the al-Qaida-linked militants from power in early 2013.

In recent weeks, though, suspected jihadists have again assaulted the town of Gao and attempted other attacks, raising fears their prominence could again grow as France looks to downsize its mission there.

France has more than 3,000 troops in Mali and President Francois Hollande said last month that a drawdown to 1,000 troops would be delayed slightly from the end of the year to the end of January 2014.

The U.N. peacekeeping force known as MINUSMA took over from the 6,000-member African-led mission in Mali on July 1 with an authorized strength of 11,200 military personnel.

West African leaders also focused economic integration issues at Friday's summit, including finalizing a common external tariff, an important step toward consolidating regional markets before negotiations with the European Union.

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