PARIS — France will move surveillance drones to West Africa and is holding secretive talks with US officials in Paris this week as it seeks to steer international military action to help Mali’s feeble government win back the northern part of the country from Al Qaeda-linked rebels.
France and the United Nations insist that any invasion of Mali’s north be led by African troops.
But France, which has six hostages in Mali and has citizens who have joined Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is playing an increasing role behind the scenes.
Many in the West fear that northeast Mali and the arid Sahel region could become a no-man’s-land where extremists can train, impose hard-line Islamic law, and plot terror attacks abroad.
And France, former colonial ruler to countries across the Sahel, is a prime target.
‘‘This is actually a major threat — to French interests in the region, and to France itself,’’ said Francois Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a partially state-funded think tank in Paris.
‘‘This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when [Osama] bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks.’’