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France is setting up a base in northern Niger as part of an operation aimed at stopping al Qaeda-linked militants from crisscrossing the Sahel-Sahara region between southern Libya and Mauritania, officials said.Under the new plan, about 3,000 French troops are now operating out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -- countries straddling the vast arid Sahel band -- with the aim of stamping out Islamist fighters across the region.Neither France nor Niger has said where the base will be but military sources in Niger said it was likely to be around Madama, a remote desert outpost in the northeast, where Niger already has some troops based.Two diplomatic sources said Abou Aassim El-Mouhajir, a spokesman for Belmokhtar's "Those Who Sign in Blood" brigade, was captured by French troops in August.French media said he had been taken in Niger. Niger intelligence sources said French troops had passed through Madama around the time of the operation.
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