French forces have left the city of Timbuktu, the latest sign that the former colonial power is drawing down its presence in northern Mali nearly nine years after driving fighters from power there in a military intervention.
The symbolic move came on Tuesday amid fears about whether the Malian military can now step in and fend off the fighters, who have regrouped and expanded their reach even further southward since the 2013 offensive.
In a communique, the French military emphasised late on Tuesday that the Malian military maintains “a strong garrison in Timbuktu,” in addition to nearly 2,200 UN peacekeepers who are permanently deployed there.
French lowered its flag and handed over keys to a military base to Mali’s military in a ceremony that took place near the city’s airport, with Malian army officers, officials from the local government and the United Nations attending.
General Etienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Operation Barkhane, shook hands with the new camp commander and offered him a large wooden key as a French military plane made a low flyover.
France “will be present in a different way”, said du Peyroux.
“This is ultimately the aim of Operation Barkhane: to allow Mali to take its destiny into its own hands… but always in partnership.”
Turning the page
Since 2013, Paris has deployed around 5,100 troops across the Sahel region — which includes Mali — aiming to support local governments and their poorly equipped forces fighting an ever-growing insurgency.
However, the attacks have grown more frequent. An insurgency that began in Mali has spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in June after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that ousted the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France’s deployment in the Sahel is due to fall to about 3,000 troops by next year.
“For us, this is a page that is turning,” French captain Florian, former base commander, told reporters.
“But the mission continues. My soldiers and I will continue our mission in Mali.”
Anger at French presence in region
French troop reduction is occurring amid heightened tensions with Mali’s army-dominated government –– first provoked after last year’s coup –– as well as growing local opposition to the French presence across the region.
France’s anti-insurgency campaign has claimed the lives of 52 French soldiers in combat.
But Paris also faces increasing difficulties on the ground including with local people who resent the presence of soldiers from the former colonial power, as well as new regimes in partner countries.
Protests that were once isolated to urban centres have spread to rural areas, fanned by social media and anger at the ever-worsening violence, as well as highly-publicised incidents of troops killing civilians.
In November, protesters in Burkina Faso and Niger hampered a large French military supply convoy travelling from Ivory Coast to Mali. Some threw stones and held signs saying “Down with France”.