French President Emmanuel Macron and allies in a European-led force announced Thursday they would begin withdrawing troops from Mali after a decade long anti-extremist operation in the Sahel.
Niger had agreed to host European forces fighting Islamist militants in the Sahel after France and its allies decided to withdraw from neighbouring Mali, according to Mr Macron.
He also said the remaining forces would provide further assistance for countries in the Gulf of Guinea.
France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel region, including 2,400 in Mali, a former French colony, which is run by a junta.
"These states are increasingly exposed to efforts by terrorist groups to implant themselves in their territory," Mr Macron told a press conference. "We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share."
The president said he "completely" rejected the idea that France had failed in the country.
The Mali and Burkina Faso coup leaders were not invited to the Paris talks, as both nations are suspended from the African Union, the French presidency said.
The EU this month imposed sanctions on five senior members of Mali’s transitional government, including Prime Minister Choguel Maiga, accusing them of working to obstruct the country’s transition from military to civilian rule.
“We are now in a situation which requires drawing the consequences of the political split and operational split” with Mali, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
A statement on Thursday said the drawdown would be co-ordinated over several months. "At the request of their African partners, and based on discussions on future modalities of joint action, they agreed nonetheless to continue their joint action against terrorism in the Sahel region, including in Niger and in the Gulf of Guinea, and have begun political and military consultations with them with the aim to set out the terms for this shared action by June 2022," the statement said.
A key question still to be answered will be the future of the 14,000 UN peacekeeping mission, the European Union Training Mission and EUCAP missions.
Tension has grown between Mali, its African neighbours and the EU, especially after the West African country’s transitional government allowed Russian mercenaries to operate in its territory. The withdrawal of French troops from Mali marks a loss of influence for Paris and Europe as a whole in Africa, leaving the way open for other powers to step in.
The Europeans in December condemned the Malian transitional authorities’ decision to allow the presence of Russia’s Wagner Group, which has started operating in the country and is accused of rights abuses in the Central African Republic, Libya and Syria.
"It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France," wrote the Le Monde daily.
As the end point loomed Paris led intense consultations with its regional and European partners to avoid the appearance of France making unilateral decisions about Mali.
“Today, our partners tend to think that the conditions for a success of our mission in Mali are not met any more, but we don’t want to bring a response before making sure a consensus is clearly established,” a French official said.
The official suggested that troops from the European-led military task force known as Takuba may also withdraw.
At the same time, “other countries in the region want more support” and expressed their will to keep a “European presence”, the official said, hence the rebasing of some elements of the forces to Niger.
An organised withdrawal
Less than two months before France’s presidential election on April 10, Paris also wants to avoid a disorganised withdrawal that could be perceived as a defeat for Mr Macron as he runs for re-election.
At least 53 French soldiers have died in the Sahel since the beginning of the operation. Insecurity in the region has worsened in recent years, with attacks on civilians and UN peacekeepers. The EU has been training the Malian armed forces since 2013.
With more than 5,000 troops deployed at its height, the asymmetric Sahel conflict against Al-Qaeda and the ISIS fighters shaped an entire generation of French soldiers.
Although some groups were able to mount rocket or mortar attacks or even complex assaults on convoys and isolated bases in the vast, arid Sahel, their improvised roadside bombs caused more deaths and injuries than any other weapon.
For their part, the French relied on aerial strikes for swift responses to the latest intelligence, whether from unmanned Reaper drones newly added to their arsenal or more classic attack helicopters and fighter jets.
But Paris's ground forces in particular see a transformed future, notably with tensions now mounting with Russia in eastern Europe.
Army chief Pierre Schill told reporters that the branch must "be capable of potentially facing an adversary on the same level" in a major "high-intensity" conflict.
Mali’s transitional government asked Denmark last month to pull out its small military force only one week after it arrived as part of the EU force.
“The situation in the Sahel is a serious crisis on the threshold of Europe,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, who attended Wednesday’s talks in Paris.
“Fragility increases the risk of migratory flows toward Europe. There are terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS in the area that must be fought."
German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said: "In our view the latest political developments in Mali are worrying and of course they could affect German and international involvement in Mali.”