PARIS (AP) – France is withdrawing more than 2,000 troops from an anti-extremism force in the Sahel region of Africa early next year and will instead turn its military presence into specialized regional forces, President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday.
Macron last month announced a future reduction in France’s military presence, arguing that it is no longer tailored to the needs of the region. The French Barkhane force, which operated in Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, had also met with opposition from some Africans.
After discussions on Friday with leaders of the African countries involved, Macron announced that France would reduce its strength to 2,500 to 3,000 troops in the long term. The country currently has 5,000 troops in the region.
The French leader insisted that his country does not abandon African partners and will continue to help them fight groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
“France has not the call or the will to stay forever in the Sahel,”
French troops have been present in Mali since 2013 when they intervened to force Islamic extremist rebels from power in cities across the north of the country. Operation Serval was later replaced by Barkhane and expanded to include other countries in an attempt to help stabilize the wider Sahel region.
Islamic militants, however, have continued to launch destructive attacks against the military fighting against them, as well as increasingly against civilians.
Hundreds have died since January in a series of massacres targeting villages on the border with Niger and Mali.
While governments in the Sahel have embraced France’s military aid, some critics have compared their presence to a sanctuary for French colonial rule.
Over the next six months, France will focus on dismantling the Barkhane operation and reorganizing the troops, Macron said.
The French military will close the Barkhane bases in Timbuktu, Tessalit and Kidal in northern Mali over the next six months and begin reconfiguring its presence in the coming weeks, focusing in particular on the restrained border area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet.
Nigerian President Mohamed Bazoum, speaking on Macron’s side, welcomed French military support and training, but on African terms.
“The most important thing is that France upholds the principle of its support, its cooperation and its support for the armed forces of the various countries. We need France to give us what we do not have. We do not need France to give us what we already have, “he said without elaborating. He acknowledged the failure of the local armed forces, but also praised their courage in fighting extremists.
France’s military presence in the future will focus on neutralizing extremist operations and strengthening and training local armies, Macron said. “There will also be a dimension of reassurance … to remain permanently ready to intervene quickly in support of partner forces,” especially through military aviation from Niger and Chad.
This new structure “seems to us to respond better to the development of the threat,” he said. When the reorganization is complete, he said, “Barkhane operation will close.”
Some experts say France’s decision may be linked to growing political instability in Mali.
Macron’s June announcement came days after Mali head of state Colonel Assimi Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government, strengthening his grip on power in the West African nation after carrying out his second coup in nine months.
In late June, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a decision to expand the UN peacekeeping mission in crisis-ridden Mali, saying it was “imperative” that the military government hold presidential and legislative elections scheduled for February next year.
The Council maintained the ceilings of the UN force at 13,289 military troops and 1,920 international police, but asked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to make a recommendation on the level of strength given the growing levels of insecurity and physical violence against civilians in central Mali.
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal. Masha Macpherson of Paris contributed.