Germany's Merkel, on first leg of Africa trip, pledges help for Mali

October 9, 2016 4:38 PM EDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a meeting of the Christian Democratic Seniors Union in Magdeburg, Germany, October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged more support to fight against drug and people smuggling from Mali, on the first day of a trip to Africa where she will try to work toward curbing future waves of migration and to repair her reputation at home.

She gave no details on what form the support would take.

Merkel, who has yet to declare if she will seek a fourth term as chancellor next year, has seen the popularity of her conservatives slump after her move last year to allow almost one million migrants - most from the Middle East - to enter Germany.

Mali is among the top 10 countries of origin for migrants arriving in Italy this year, the International Organization for Migration says, and smuggling routes for migrants from other parts of West Africa also cross its desert spaces.

Merkel, who visits Niger on Monday and Ethiopia on Tuesday, did not say whether Germany would also provide more helicopters for the United Nations' MINUSMA mission in Mali.

Germany has more than 500 soldiers in Mali.

Merkel said Germany would intensify its support for the agriculture sector as well as for the security of the northern part of the country, where Islamist groups are still active.

She told reporters after meeting President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita: "We have a strong interest in stabilizing the country."

"We want to contribute to the stabilization of Mali."

The Malian army is still largely absent from Mali's desert north despite a peace agreement signed last year that aimed to speed its return, placing great pressure on MINUSMA forces to keep roaming militias and Islamist militants at bay.

Merkel has described Africa, with its population of 1.2 billion, as "the central problem" in the migration issue, and last month said the EU needed to establish migrant deals with north African countries along the lines of a deal with Turkey.

Under a pact with the EU, Ankara has agreed to take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally, including Syrians.

Germany, France and Italy have said they want to develop particularly closer relationships with Niger and Mali, which they see as important partners in solving the migration issue.

(Reporting by Andreas Rinke; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in DAKAR; Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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