German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday pledged support for the stabilization and development of Mali, where Islamist groups are operating in the north of the country.

Cooperation to develop irrigation and agriculture will be increased in the north, Merkel said after holding talks with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Bamako at the start of a three-day African tour.

Malian police officers will also be instructed in the combat against drug and human trafficking on the border in the framework of a EU training mission, Merkel said.

At Bamako airport, the chancellor met with German soldiers forming part of a UN peacekeeping mission in the West African country.

The UN is considering which country could replace helicopters that the Netherlands is planning to withdraw for repairs, Merkel said.

Keita said Germany, Italy and France – which want closer cooperation with Mali and Niger to slow migration to Europe – should seek intelligent solutions respecting human values.

Merkel is the first German chancellor to visit Mali, where more than 550 German peacekeepers are trying to help stabilize the north, which fell into the hands of Islamist insurgents in 2012.

The insurgents were pushed back after an intervention by the country's former colonial power France in early 2013, but armed groups still operate in the area.

On Monday, Merkel will travel to Niger, another country seen as a key point of transit for migrants heading for Europe.

Germany recorded the arrival of 890,000 migrants in 2015, many of whom had fled conflict in Syria and Afghanistan and economic hardship across the African continent.

A Tuareg militant leader was meanwhile killed in the northern Malian city of Kidal, local radio station Kledu quoted security sources as saying.

Cheikh Ag Aoussa's car exploded near a UN base where he had just held talks with UN troops on Saturday.

Tuareg pastoralists were involved in the 2012 uprising. Aoussa was the second-in-command of one of the groups forming the Tuareg-led Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), according to Radio France Internationale.

On Tuesday, Merkel will head for Ethiopia, which has seen months of anti-government protests in the restive Oromia region. The government on Saturday declared a state of emergency to get the situation under control.

"The continued violence in some parts of Ethiopia has claimed the lives of people and caused widespread destruction to property. We have to stop this soon," Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said Sunday.

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