French troops leave key base in Timbuktu, turning point in mission in Mali


French troops left a key military base in the northern Mali city of Timbuktu on Tuesday in a symbolic departure more than eight years after Paris first intervened in the conflict-torn Sahel state.

More than eight years after then French President François Hollande officially declared the start of France’s military intervention to root out jihadist insurgents from northern Mali, French troops handed over a key base in Timbuktu to the Malian army.

From the Malian capital Bamako, FRANCE 24’s Cyril Payen said this marked the beginning of the end of a nearly decade-long French military mission in the West African country.

“It is a turning point that we are now leaving with the transfer of the Timbuktu outpost from the French army to the Malian army. It’s really important in the timeline of the French military presence in this part of Africa, ”Payen said.

Since the launch of the Malian mission in 2013, France has deployed around 5,100 troops in the vast Sahel region, which includes Mali, helping to support local governments and their ill-equipped forces in the fight against an ever-growing Islamist insurgency. which killed thousands of people.

But after leaving the bases of Kidal and Tessal in northern Mali, the French troops packed their bags in Timbuktu.

“It’s time to resize, reshape”

More than eight years ago, when French troops liberated Timbuktu from jihadist control, they were greeted in the streets of historic Mali.

“Some people were overcome with emotion, women were crying, young people were screaming, I myself was upset,” said Yehia Tandina, TV journalist from Timbuktu, recalling the day.

Mohamed Ibrahim, the former president of the Timbuktu regional council, also described the day as “joyous” and “beautiful”.

But opposition to the French military presence has grown in recent years with rising insecurity and increased jihadist attacks fueling anti-French sentiments in the former French colony.

The lack of enthusiasm may be linked to continuing conflicts in the vast country of 19 million people.

Jihadist attacks have become more frequent since 2013 and the conflict has spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

“People are changing their minds about the French military presence here,” Payen said, noting that there had been three consecutive days of anti-French protests in Bamako. “It is really time to resize, to reshape the French military presence in this part of Africa.”

Fewer French troops, fewer attacks

Now that French troops are leaving their base in Timbuktu, questions are being raised about the future of jihadist activity in the countryside.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major withdrawal of French troops in June, after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that overthrew President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

France’s military deployment in the Sahel is expected to decline to around 3,000 troops by next year.

The question of whether France’s mission can be qualified as a military success is a sensitive one.

“We have to hope that things will improve for civilians,” said Master Corporal Julien, who was part of the 2013 French military operation in Timbuktu.

Outside the city, residents appear to have reconciled with the jihadists, Western security officials and diplomats have said.

An acceptance of their legitimacy, at least among locals, may also have reduced violence.

“Where there is coexistence, there will certainly be less negative acts,” said Tandina, the journalist, noting an improvement in security in the Timbuktu region.

According to the UN, militants’ attacks on civilians in and around Timbuktu are at their lowest since 2015.

‘We live with’

Mali’s central government, which is supported by the UN inside the city, is largely invisible in the countryside.

Most jihadists in the region are affiliated with al-Qaeda. In their propaganda, they boast of controlling the territory and winning the hearts of the locals.

A Timbuktu resident, who declined to be named, told AFP that many people prefer to use the Islamic justice system rather than the official system.

An Islamic judge, Houka Houka Ag Alhousseini, remains active in the region despite being on a UN sanctions list for working in a similar capacity during the jihadist occupation of Timbuktu.

The jihadists recently attacked telecommunications infrastructure, causing lingering network problems.

“Of course there are problems,” said Ali Ibrahim, a 26-year-old law student, citing the lack of work among other problems affecting the lives of residents.

“But we are here, and we will still be here tomorrow,” he said. “So we live with it.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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