The French president said continued military engagement in the Sahel “will not be the same”, with details to be announced by the end of June.
President Emmanuel Macron said France’s military operation in the violence-stricken West African Sahel region would no longer exist in its current form, adding that it would be replaced by another mission French troops who would rely more on other partners.
“The time has come; the continuation of our engagement in the Sahel will not be done in the same way,” Macron said at a high-profile press conference on Thursday, describing a “profound transformation” in his military presence. countries in the region.
France currently has around 5,100 troops deployed in the semi-arid strip on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert as part of its Operation Barkhane, headquartered in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
“We will make an organized withdrawal,” Macron said, adding that details, including the number of troops France is keeping in the region, will be finalized by the end of June.
“We will have to dialogue with our African and European partners. We will keep an anti-terrorist pillar with special forces with several hundred forces … and there will be a second pillar which will be cooperation, and which we will strengthen. “
The announcement came after Macron in February – during a virtual summit with the leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel countries, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – expressed his intention to reduce the French workforce in a few months.
Conflict in the western part of the Sahel between state forces and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIL) and al-Qaeda has ravaged much of the region over the past decade, triggering a significant humanitarian crisis.
Nearly 7,000 people have died as a result of worsening fighting last year, according to data from the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. At the end of January, the United Nations warned that “relentless violence” had displaced more than two million people inside the country, up from 490,000 in early 2019.
Last year, the French government increased its staff in Barkhane by 600.
Information citing military and diplomatic sources had indicated that an “adjustment” of the French presence would depend on the involvement of other European countries in the Takuba Task Force fighting armed groups in the Sahel alongside the Malian and Nigerian armies. These forces have intensified in recent months.
At the February summit, the leaders of the G5 countries warned Macron of the dangers of a rapid withdrawal. Since then, the veteran leader of Chad and a close ally of France, Idriss Deby Itno, has been killed, while Mali has suffered a second coup which has severely strained relations with Paris.
Last week, France suspended joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defense advice because Mali’s new military government failed to give guarantees for free elections. .
Natacha Butler of Al Jazeera, reporting from Paris, said the timing of the announcement was important, highlighting the recent coup in Mali and a meeting next week of NATO allies in Brussels, as well as next French elections.
“Operation Barkhane and its presence in the Sahel have become increasingly unpopular in France,” she said. “More than 50 [French] soldiers have died since 2013 and there is therefore no doubt that Emmanuel Macron is well aware that French public opinion is turning against him.