France and EU to Withdraw Troops From Mali, Remain in Region

PARIS (AP) -- France will withdraw its troops from Mali nine years after it first intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power but intends to maintain a military presence in neighboring West African nations, President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday.

Macron accused Mali's ruling military junta of neglecting the fight against Islamic extremists and said it was logical for France to withdraw since its role is not to replace a sovereign state on the battlefield.

"Victory against terror is not possible if it's not supported by the state itself," the French leader told a press conference with EU and African Union officials.

France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel region, including 2,400 in Mali. The so-called Barkhane force is also involved in Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. A French Armed Forces spokesperson, Col. Pascal Ianni, said France ultimately aims to reduce the number of its troops in the Sahel to 2,500-3,000.

Macron said the French pullout would be done "in an orderly manner" in coordination with the Malian military.

France will start by closing military bases in the north of Mali, and the withdrawal will take four to six months, he said.

An August 2020 coup led by Col. Assimi Goita grabbed power in Mali. Goita carried out a second coup by dismissing the civilian leaders in Mali's transitional government and putting himself in charge last year.

"We cannot remain militarily involved" alongside Malian transitional authorities with whom "we don't share the strategy and goals," Macron said.

European leaders simultaneously announced Thursday that troops from a EU-led military task force known as Takuba also would withdraw from Mali. The Takuba task force is composed of several hundred special forces troops from about a dozen countries, including France.

Asked about whether British troops will leave Mali, UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said the bulk of Britons are working with the UN alongside German and Swedish troops.

"We are already speaking together, the three nations, to see what that means for us," he said

Mali's transitional government asked Denmark to pull out its small military force last month just one week after it arrived as part of the EU force. Tensions have grown between Mali, its African neighbors and the European Union, especially after the West African country's transitional government allowed Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to deploy in its territory.

Macron said support for civilians in Mali would continue, but he blamed the junta now ruling the country for its decision to hire the Wagner Group, which the EU accuses of fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in Africa.

"They have now come to Mali to act in a very predatory manner," Macron said. He asserted there are some 800 Wagner mercenaries present in the country who "have mostly come to secure their economic interests."

Macron said a coalition of allies will remain in the Sahel and the Guinea Gulf to counter actions from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, adding that French troops will help secure the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali before leaving.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said she was "skeptical" that Germany could continue to take part in the training of Mali armed forces, raising doubts about the EU mission's future.

Macron organized a meeting in Paris on Wednesday evening with regional and European leaders of countries involved in the Sahel ahead of a two-day EU-Africa summit in Brussels. Representatives from Mali and Burkina Faso were not invited since both nations were suspended from the African Union following coups.

Senegalese President Macky Sall, who also chairs the African Union, said he understood the decisions by France and the EU to end theirs operation in Mali but was pleased that an agreement on a new arrangement was reached to provide a continued presence in the Sahel.

Sall said there was a consensus that the fight against terror "should not be the sole business of African countries."

Macron said the "heart" of the French operation "won't be in Mali anymore" but in neighboring Niger, especially in the region bordering Burkina Faso.

Anti-poverty organization Oxfam criticized the planned withdrawal as a "terrible admission of failure." The group said more than 2.1 million of people have left the country because of violence, and another 13 million were in need of humanitarian assistance.

"The military redeployment announced today will solve nothing if lessons are not learned about the reasons for this failure," Assalama Dawalack Sidi, Oxfam's West Africa regional director, said.

With the relocation to Niger and the reorganization of the military set up in the region, France and its allies hope to avoid a situation similar to the chaotic aftermath of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. The issue is important for Macron, who is expected to run for a second term in France's April 10 presidential election.

Ghana's President Nana Akufo-Addo, who heads the Economic Community of West African States, said "it cannot be that terrorists elements will find permanent home in West Africa."

French forces have been active since 2013 in Mali, where they intervened to drive Islamic extremists from power. But the insurgents regrouped in the desert and began attacking the Malian army and its allies.