France will begin a gradual withdrawal of its troops in the Sahel region of West Africa as part of a plan to put to an end its eight-year operation dubbed ‘Barkhane’.
French President Emmanuel Macron made the announcement on Thursday during a press conference. He said the plan is to replace the French troops with a broader international mission, without immediately providing further details.
“We will make a drawdown in an organised way,” President Macron said, noting that the details of the plan will be finalised by the end of June. These will include a decision on the number of troops France will leave in the region, he added.
France deployed its troops in the region in 2013 on the request of former Malian interim president, Dioncounda Traore.
It followed the rise of the Islamist-inspired insurgency in the north and central part of the West African country, from where jihadists were launching attacks in neighbouring countries of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, collectively referred to as the G5 countries.
Operation Barkhane is headquartered in the Chadian capital N'Djamena.
According to President Macron, France intended to dialogue with its African and European partners for a smooth implementation of the plan, assuring that it will be handled in a way that it doesn’t jeopardise the fight against the Islamists.
“We will keep a counter-terrorism pillar with special forces with several hundred forces... and there will be a second pillar that will be cooperation, and which we will reinforce,” he said.
France currently has 5,100 troops who mainly provide logistical, surveillance and air support, as well as training for Malian troops.
Thursday’s announcement comes about two weeks after Macron threatened to pull out French troops over last month’s coup by the military.
Days later he announced the suspension of its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defence advice because of the ruling junta's failure to give guarantees to respect a transition plan to democratic rule.
Macron said on Thursday that France could not continue to work with governments in the Sahel which continue to negotiate with Islamist militants.
The junta in Mali, headed by Col. Assimi Goita, blamed successive civilian governments for failing to support the military in effectively responding to the insurgency.
Col. Goita’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Choguel Kokalla Maiga, is known to have supported the idea of dialoguing with the Islamists in the past.
But the French president has also come under pressure at home to end the French troops’ deployment over its cost in human lives. More than 40 French troops have died in the region since their deployment, and Mali has lost hundreds of its troops.
The Islamists have staged deadly attacks in the region, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso.
But locally in the region, there has also been a rise in anti-French sentiments, especially in Mali following the latest coup.