By Daniel Flynn
DAKAR (Reuters) - Senegalese President Macky Sall said on Friday he had asked U.S. President Barack Obama to provide more help to African nations fighting an Islamist threat in the Sahara, particularly in the sphere of military training, hardware and intelligence.
Sall, who held talks with Obama in Dakar on Thursday on the first leg of a three-nation African tour, said they had discussed the menace from al Qaeda-linked groups in the vast and lawless desert region, which runs east to west across Africa.
Senegal borders Mali, where armed Islamists seized control of the country's north last year. France launched a military campaign in January to oust the jihadists - warning that their enclave was a threat to the West - but groups of fighters have regathered in the deserts of south Libya and north Niger.
"We need in Africa, not just in Senegal but the whole of Africa, to have the military capacity to solve this problem but we need training, we need materials, we need intelligence," Sall told Reuters in an interview.
The United States, as well as the European Union and France, had a crucial role to play in helping African countries overcome a lack of military capacity and resources, Sall said. The Islamists had armed themselves with weapons looted from the stocks of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi after he was toppled in 2011.
"We need our friends to cooperate with us to help build those capacities and I think President Obama understands that terrorism since September 11 moves around the world," he said. "It is a global action and I think he's ready to work in that way."
The United States has already stationed surveillance drones and sent military trainers to Niger to prepare African troops which will form part of a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, due to start on July 1.
Washington had for many years conducted counter-terrorism training in Mali but military cooperation was halted by a March 2012 coup in Bamako, prompted by a northern uprising by Islamists and Tuareg separatists.
Sall said both he and Obama agreed it was essential for planned presidential elections in Mali to go ahead on July 28, despite reservations from some advocacy groups, in order to complete a transition back to democracy.
Some rights groups have said Mali will not be ready to hold the ballot and have called for it to be postponed, warning that a botched vote could jeopardize the legitimacy of a new government charged with ending ethnic and religious tensions.
"We think, and we discussed this, that on July 28 the Malians should hold presidential elections. I think we can really do it," said Sall, whose country has sent troops to take part in the U.N. mission.
TIME TO BUILD BETTER RELATIONS
Sall voiced confidence Obama intended to devote more attention to Africa after a first term spent dealing with the global financial crisis and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many Africans have seen their initial enthusiasm over America's first black president turn to disappointment after he visited the continent only once during his first term: a one-day stopover in Ghana shortly after taking office in 2009.
"Today it's his second term and the time has come for him to build better the relation between the USA and Africa," Sall said.
"Africa is a place where you can invest and get back your investment very easily ... His visit to Africa will facilitate American investment in the continent."
Sall said U.S. companies were interested in investing in Senegal in the energy sector and infrastructure projects, like toll roads and railways. Senegal was seeking joint-ventures with U.S. firms to add value, particularly in agriculture where local companies needed help to meet U.S. sanitary standards.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; editing by Ralph Boulton)