Mali asks France to pull out troops 'without delay'

More than 4,000 French soldiers are currently stationed in the Sahel

France announced it is withdrawing its troops from Mali during an EU-Africa summit in Brussels. EPA
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Mali's army-led government on Friday asked France to withdraw its forces from the Sahel state “without delay”, calling into question Paris's plans to pull out over several months.

A Malian government spokesman added in a statement announced on public television that the results of France's nine-year military engagement in the conflict-torn country were “not satisfactory".

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was withdrawing troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the nation's junta.

France first intervened in Mali in 2013 to combat an extremist insurgency that began one year before. It currently has about 4,600 troops stationed across the Sahel, 2,400 of them in Mali.

But relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply after Mali's army seized power in a coup in 2020 and later defied calls to swiftly restore civilian rule.

The French pullout after nearly a decade is also set to see the smaller European Takuba group of special forces, created in 2020, leave Mali.

Mr Macron said the withdrawal would take place over four to six months.

Government spokesman Col Abdoulaye Maiga called the prolonged French withdrawal a “flagrant violation” of accords between the two countries.

“In view of these repeated breaches of defence agreements, the government invites the French authorities to withdraw without delay,” he said.

Mali has also asked the smaller Takuba force to depart quickly.

Mr Macron responded with a statement saying he would not compromise the safety of French soldiers and the withdrawal will take place “in orderly fashion".

The planned withdrawal of France and its allies has raised questions about the possibility of a security vacuum in impoverished Mali, a vast and ethnically diverse nation of 21 million people.

Mali's call for a swift French military withdrawal caps months of escalating tension with its former colonial master.

Relations first began to fray after Malian army officers led by Col Assimi Goita deposed elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.

The army then deposed the civilian leaders of a transitional government last year in a second coup.

Mali's international partners — including France and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) — insisted that the junta stick to a pledge to stage elections in February 2022 and restore civilian rule.

But the junta then floated plans to stay in power for up to five years.

The proposal prompted the 15-nation Ecowas bloc to impose a trade embargo and shut its borders with Mali in January.

France followed by announcing a pullout on Thursday. But Paris had already begun to scale back its deployment before relations nosedived.

It closed three bases in northern Mali this year, where the bulk of its anti-extremist Barkhane force had been stationed.

Mr Macron said the closure of three bases in Gao, Menaka and Gossi would take between four to six months.

As well as concerns over civilian rule in Mali, Paris has protested the junta's reported use of Russia's Wagner Group, a private security firm.

The US and other countries say that hundreds of fighters from the paramilitary group are in the country, though the junta denies the claim.

Mali remains the epicentre of the Sahel-wide Islamist conflict, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and displaced about two million people.

The conflict has spread deeper into Mali, despite the presence of French troops, which has fed popular resentment of France's military intervention.

France and its allies have vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in the Sahel despite leaving Mali.

Rival extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS not only carry out regular attacks on national and foreign troops, but are also fighting each other for territory.

This week, ISIS offshoot EIGS killed about 40 civilians who it claimed were complicit with their Al Qaeda-aligned rivals GSIM, local sources told AFP on Friday.

A civilian official in the northern Tessit area said it was a common occurrence.

“When a [terror] group passes through a village, the one that comes later accuses the residents of being accomplices,” said the official, whose name was withheld for security reasons.

The residents, who are “unable to kill a fly”, thus become caught up in the rivalry.

Updated: February 19, 2022, 12:19 AM
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