France says its last soldiers have left Mali, completing a withdrawal that ends one nine years of operation in the country at the center of the growing security crisis in the Sahel region.
In a statement, the French military said on Monday it had met the “major logistical challenge” of withdrawing troops “in an orderly and safe manner”.
The withdrawal comes in the middle tank relations between Paris and Bamako, which has increasingly turned to Russia in response to armed groups linked to ISIS (ISIL) and al-Qaeda, has expanded its reach while vying for control over the vast central region. large of the country.
“Today at 1 p.m. Paris time [11:00 GMT] The last contingent of Barkhane forces still on Malian territory has crossed the border between Mali and Niger,” the French military statement said, using the official name of the main French operation in the region, which was launched Working in collaboration with Burkina Faso, Chad. , Mali, Mauritania and Niger in 2014 as armed groups became increasingly active in Mali’s arid heartland.
France initially intervened in the country at Bamako’s request in 2013, during Operation Serval, in response to an ethnic-Tuareg attack. secessionist movement, which has allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate, in the north of the country.
In a statement on Monday, the French president said: “France remains engaged in (the wider) (region), in the Gulf of Guinea and the Lake Chad region with all partners committed to stability and counter-terrorism Father.”
Niger will now become the heart of the French military in the Sahel, with about 1,000 troops stationed in the capital, Niamey, along with fighter jets, drones and helicopters, French officials told reporters. member last month. Another 300 to 400 people will be deployed for special operations with the Nigerien army in the border regions with Burkina and Mali.
Some 700 to 1,000 French troops are also stationed in Chad, with an undisclosed number of special forces operating elsewhere in the region, officials said, adding that French troops will no longer be deployed. missions or pursue armed groups into Mali when exit is complete. .
In February, France had about 2,400 troops and several bases in Mali when it announced its withdrawal, which also included the end of a smaller French-led European Union force called Takuba that was active near the border of Niger and Burkina Faso.
The French deployment has become increasingly unpopular with the Malian public in recent years, with many resenting the former colonial presence in the country.
France’s relations with the government then severely deteriorated successive coups in 2020 and 2021. The discord is fueled by French pressure to force the military-led government to adopt a rapid timeline to return to civilian rules and pivot Bamako’s axis towards Moscow.
Mali’s military leaders have denied reports that Russian mercenaries have been deployed to the country, saying instead they have invited “Russian trainers” to bolster national defense.
On Monday, the Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Islam (JNIM) said it had killed four mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner in an ambush in central Mali. . JNIM said it attacked the group on Saturday as they rode motorbikes in the Bandiagara region near the village of Djallo.
The violence is just the latest instance of bloodshed in central Mali, where insecurity has increased in recent years and increasingly threatens the wider region, despite a flurry of military activity.
Malian forces, Russian mercenaries and various armed groups, who often exploit community tensions due to dwindling resources, have been accused of crimes. Massacre and illegal killingWhile a United Nations investigation says French air strikes have left dozens of civilians dead.
To date, thousands of people have been killed in a state of insecurity and more than two million civilians have been forced to flee their homes in central Mali, which is also the base of the organization widely seen as belonging to the United Nations. United Nations. the most dangerous peacekeeper mission, MINUSMA.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday sought to portray France’s intervention in Mali as a success, saying it “prevents the establishment of a territorial caliphate and fights against terrorists who attack people”. local population and threaten Europe”.
He said most senior member of “terrorist groups” have been “neutralised”. He added that 59 French soldiers were killed in Mali during the nine years France was in the war.
France said a total of about 2,500 troops would remain in the region after the withdrawal.