Last French troops leave Mali, ending nine-year deployment

France announced withdrawal in February as relations with Bamako frayed in wake of military coups in 2020 and 2021.

The last soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane operation in Mali have left the African country, the French military has said [Thomas Coex/AFP]

France has said its final troops have left Mali, completing a withdrawal that ends a nine-year operation in the country at the centre of the Sahel region’s spiralling security crisis.

In a statement, the French army said on Monday it had met the “major military logistics challenge” of the pullout “in an orderly and safe fashion”.

The withdrawal comes amid tanking relations between Paris and Bamako, which has increasingly turned to Russia to respond to armed groups linked to ISIS (ISIL) and al-Qaeda who have expanded their reach while jockeying for control in the country’s sprawling central region.

“Today at 1pm Paris time [11:00 GMT] the final contingent of the Barkhane force still on Malian territory 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 with the cooperation of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in 2014 as armed groups became increasingly active in Mali’s arid centre.

France had initially intervened in the country at the request of Bamako in 2013, under Operation Serval, to respond to an offensive by the ethnic-Tuareg separatist movement, which had allied with an al-Qaeda affiliate, in the country’s north.

In a statement on Monday, the French Presidency said: “France remains engaged in the (wider) Sahel (region), in the Gulf of Guinea and the Lake Chad region with all partners committed to stability and to the fight against terrorism.”

Niger will now become the hub for French troops in the Sahel, with about 1,000 soldiers based in the capital, Niamey, along with fighter jets, drones and helicopters, French officials told reporters last month. Another 300 to 400 would be dispatched for special operations with Niger troops in the border regions with Burkina and Mali.

About 700 to 1,000 French troops are also based in Chad, with an undisclosed number of special forces operating elsewhere in the region, the officials said, adding that French troops would no longer carry out missions or pursue armed groups into Mali once the exit was complete.

In February, France had about 2,400 troops and several bases in Mali when it announced its withdrawal, which also included ending the smaller French-led European Union force called Takuba that had been operating near the border of Niger and Burkina Faso.

Frayed relations

The French deployment had become increasingly unpopular with the Malian public in recent years, with many resenting the presence of the former coloniser in the country.

France’s relations with the government then dramatically declined followed consecutive coups in 2020 and 2021. The discord was fuelled by French pressure for the military-led government to adopt a swift timeline for a return to civilian rules and a pivot by Bamako towards Moscow.

Mali’s military leaders have denied that Russian mercenaries have been deployed to the country, saying instead it had invited “Russian trainers” to strengthen national defence.

On Monday, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) said it had killed four mercenaries from the Russian private security group Wagner in an ambush in central Mali. JNIM said it had attacked the group on Saturday as they rode motorcycles in the Bandiagara region near the village of Djallo.

The violence was only the latest instance of bloodshed in central Mali, where insecurity has grown in recent years and increasingly threatened the wider region, despite an array of military operations.

Malian forces, Russian mercenaries and various armed groups, who often exploit communal tensions fuelled by dwindling resources, have been accused of committing massacres and extrajudicial killings, while a United Nations investigation has said French air strikes have killed dozens of civilians.

To date, thousands of people have been killed in the insecurity and more than two million civilians have been forced to flee homes in central Mali, which is also the base of what is widely considered the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday sought to portray France’s involvement in Mali as a success, saying it “prevented the establishment of a territorial caliphate, and fought against terrorists that attack local populations and threaten Europe”.

He said most high-ranking members of the “terrorist groups” had been “neutralised”. He added that 59 French soldiers had been killed in Mali during the nine years of French involvement.

France has said a total of about 2,500 troops will remain in the region following the withdrawal.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies