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French forces preparing to leave Mali

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French forces preparing to leave Mali

After nine years deployed in Mali, France is organizing a drawdown, with troops preparing to leave the last of three bases in the far north of the insurgency-hit and poverty-wracked country.

French troops were sent to Mali in 2013 by then-president Francois Hollande to tackle the rebels affiliated to Al-Qaeda or Islamic State in the arid north.

Paris has since deployed around 5,100 troops across the Sahel region, which includes Mali, helping to support local governments and their poorly-equipped forces fight an ever-growing Islamist insurgency that has left thousands dead.

But after leaving the Kidal and Tessal bases in north Mali, French troops are now packing up in Timbuktu.

“We’re training Malian forces in holding their ground and in guiding air support before they take over from us,” a commander in charge of the withdrawal in Timbuktu said, giving only his rank, captain, and first name, Florian.

Around him, several dozen soldiers could be seen packing boxes, taking down a basketball hoop, or sorting through medical supplies and tents.

All the material is being sent south by road to the French base in Gao.

“Everything is being sorted, labelled, then either destroyed, re-used here or sent back to France,” Major Christelle explained, surrounded by piles of camp beds as well as spare parts for vehicles.

Frence President Emmanuel Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in June and is hoping other EU forces will step up to support what he sees as an essential counter-terror mission keeping Europe safe.

“We were around 5,000 soldiers in the Sahel in summer 2021. We will be around 3,000 in summer 2022,” said General Laurent Michon, who commands the French military mission in the Sahel known as Barkhane.

New reductions are expected by 2023.

The focus of French operations will now be a particularly volatile and strategic zone known as the “three borders” where the frontiers of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso meet.

French forces will no longer patrol to secure ground areas, instead of focusing on providing air support to local soldiers and carrying out targeted anti-terror raids.

In September, Macron announced that French troops had killed the head of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), while the head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was reportedly killed.

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