The departure of French personnel from Timbuktu is the latest indicator that the former colonial power is lowering its presence in northern Mali, nearly nine years after a military incursion that helped beat back fighters who had taken control of portions of the country.
Former French President Francois Hollande declared the start of France’s military intervention in Mali on February 2, 2013, in Timbuktu. At a military base where a garrison of roughly 150 soldiers had remained after France began withdrawing troops, the French flag was down and the Malian flag was raised in its place on Tuesday.
As a French military plane flew low overhead, General Etienne du Peyroux, the head of France’s Operation Barkhane military campaign in Mali, shook hands with the new camp commander and handed him a giant wooden key.
According to du Peyroux, France “will be present in a different way.” “Operation Barkhane’s ultimate goal is to allow Mali to take control of its own future… but always in partnership.”
The new Malian commander was deafeningly quiet.
The French military emphasised in a statement that the Malian military maintains “a substantial garrison in Timbuktu,” in addition to approximately 2,200 UN peacekeepers stationed there on a permanent basis.
Mali has been engulfed in a conflict that began as a separatist movement in the country’s north in 2012, but has since degraded into a slew of armed factions vying for power in the country’s central and northern regions.
Fighting has spread to neighbouring countries like as Burkina Faso and Niger, and the region’s deteriorating security situation has triggered a severe humanitarian crisis.
Earlier this year, France stated that it would withdraw over 2,000 troops from the Sahel region by early 2022, focused its military efforts on neutralising insurgent operations and bolstering and training local militaries.
Colonel Assimi Goita, who was sworn in as Mali’s interim president after two coups in less than a year, made the choice amid rising political unrest in the country.
The possibility of mercenaries hired by the infamous Wagner Group being deployed in Mali has strained already strained ties between the French government and the coup plotters in recent months. The intensifying violence has also coincided with a surge in anti-French sentiment among Malians, who accuse Paris of failing to contain the violence and pursuing a hidden agenda.
The French military has already closed sites at Kidal and Tessalit further north, but it is still present in Gao, close to a dangerous border region where operations have been concentrated in recent years.
The international community has set a deadline of the end of February for fresh democratic elections in Mali, yet there are rising concerns that this will not happen.