In its strongest reaction yet to last week’s coup in Mali, France has said it will suspend its joint military operations with Malian forces “awaiting guarantees” that civilians return to positions of power.
Malian soldiers on May 25 detained interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane and stripped them of their powers after a dispute over a cabinet reshuffle, plunging the country into further uncertainty after a military coup in August last year.
Assimi Goita, a colonel who led both coups and was Ndaw’s deputy in the transitional administration formed in September with the task of steering the country towards the full civilian rule, was named president on May 28.
In response to the army’s latest power grab, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) regional bloc and the African Union have suspended Mali from their organisations and threatened sanctions.
“Demands and red lines have been set by ECOWAS and the African Union to clarify the framework for the political transition in Mali. It is up to the Malian authorities to respond quickly,” France’s armed forces ministry said in a statement on Thursday.
“Pending these guarantees, France, after informing its partners and the Malian authorities, has decided to suspend, as a precaution and temporarily, joint military operations with the Malian forces, as well as national advisory missions that benefit them.”
France, the former colonial power in the region, has about 5,100 soldiers in the region under its so-called Operation Barkhane which spans five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The mission, with its headquarters in Chad, was launched after France intervened in 2013 to help drive back fighters who had overrun parts of Mali.
French forces will continue to operate in the country separately and the decision will be reassessed in the coming days, the ministry said.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, reporting from Mali’s capital Bamako, said France’s announcement was “a blow” to Mali’s military rulers, as well as to its soldiers fighting armed groups in the north and the centre of the country.
“France is their primary partner,” he added. “Not only is this a suspension of military cooperation, but it also means that hundreds of instructors and trainers that are embedded within the Malian forces are no longer cooperating with the Malian armed forces.”
Over the weekend, President Emmanuel Macron had warned France would pull its soldiers out of Mali if it lurched towards what he called “radical Islamism” following the coup.
“Radical Islamism in Mali with our soldiers there? Never,” Macron, who called last week’s power grab a “coup d’etat in an unacceptable coup d’etat”, told the weekly newspaper The Journal du Dimanche.
Goita, who will be officially inaugurated as Mali’s transitional president on Monday, had served as vice president since leading a coup last August that removed democratically elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in the wake of months-long protests over perceived corruption and the government’s failure to tackle the country’s worsening conflict.
After pressure from ECOWAS, the roles of transitional president and prime minister were given to civilians ahead of elections scheduled for February 2022.
On Wednesday, the AU followed ECOWAS in suspending Mali and called the military to “urgently and unconditionally return to the barracks, and to refrain from further interference in the political processes in Mali”.
After an emergency meeting on Sunday, ECOWAS in its final communique had called for the immediate appointment of a new civilian prime minister and the formation of an “inclusive” government.