French forces have left the city of Timbuktu, the latest sign the former colonial power is scaling down its presence in northern Mali nearly nine years after a military intervention that helped push back fighters that have overrun parts of the country.
It was in Timbuktu on February 2, 2013, that former French President Francois Hollande declared the start of France’s military offensive in Mali. On Tuesday, the French flag was lowered and the Malian flag raised in its place at a military base, where a force of about 150 soldiers had remained after France began withdrawing troops.
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General Etienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Operation Barkhane military campaign in Mali, shook hands with the new camp commander and offered him a large wooden key as a French military plane made a low flyover.
France “will be present in a different way”, said du Peyroux. “This is ultimately the aim of Operation Barkhane: To allow Mali to take its destiny into its own hands … but always in partnership.”
The new Malian commander did not make any comments.
In a statement, the French military emphasised that the Malian military maintains “a strong garrison in Timbuktu”, in addition to nearly 2,200 United Nations peacekeepers who are permanently deployed there.
Mali has been plagued by a conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012, but devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the central and northern regions.
Fighting has spread to neighbouring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, with the deteriorating security situation in the region unleashing an acute humanitarian crisis.
France announced earlier this year that it would be withdrawing more than 2,000 troops from the Sahel region by early 2022, refocusing its military efforts on neutralising rebel operations, and strengthening and training local armies.
The decision came amid mounting political instability in Mali, where Colonel Assimi Goita carried out two coups in less than a year before being sworn in as the country’s interim president.
In recent months, the reports of a possible deployment of mercenaries hired by the controversial Wagner Group in Mali further strained already tense ties between the French government and the coup makers. The rising tensions have also come at a time when anti-French sentiment has become widely popular among Malians who accuse Paris of failing to contain the escalating violence and pursuing a hidden agenda.
The French military already has shut down its bases further north in Kidal and Tessalit but is maintaining its presence in Gao near a volatile border region where operations have been concentrated in recent years.
The international community has set a deadline for new democratic elections to be held in Mali by the end of February, though there are growing signs that will not happen.
On Sunday, the regional bloc known as Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) warned that Mali could face additional sanctions if more “concrete progress” is not made by January 1 towards preparing for elections.
ECOWAS has already suspended Mali, and it slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of the transitional government.
The army leaders have cited mounting insecurity throughout Mali as a reason why February’s deadline is not attainable.