France’s Turning Point in the Sahel: French Military Leaves Key Timbuktu Base in Mali After Nine Years

Written by | Saturday, December 18th, 2021

The French anti-jihadist military force in Mali handed control of the camp at Timbuktu to the
Malian army on Tuesday (14 December), after almost nine years of uninterrupted presence in
the northern area of the country. The move comes as France tries to reinvent its commitment
in the region, involving its European allies more as greater emphasis is put on making the
military effort more international. More reliance is also being put on local armies, which
remain under-equipped and under-trained despite eight years of training provided by
international partners. About 150 French soldiers have remained in Timbuktu since the start
of the French withdrawal in April 2013. French General Etienne du Peyroux, head of the antiinsurgent
Operation Barkhane in Mali, said France’s mission in Mali would continue, adding
that France would be “present differently”, allowing Mali to take control of its destiny while
offering “partnership”.
The final departure of the French soldiers represents a turning point. Operation Barkhane is
being wound down, as announced in June, as French forces in the Sahel are gradually
reduced. It was in Timbuktu, a holy city of Islam listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site,
that France’s then President François Hollande formalized the start of the French intervention
on 2 February 2013, amid scenes of jubilation after eight months of jihadist control. Almost
nine years later, jihadist groups have spread and regrouped under Al-Qaeda and the selfproclaimed
Islamic State group, which have extended their influence to neighboring Niger
and Burkina Faso. Their presence, according to a report by the International Crisis Group
think-tank, is “hegemonic” in large areas of northern and central Mali.
French troops in the Sahel are projected to drop from around 5,000 soldiers in the summer of
2021″ to “around 3,000 in the summer of 2022”, according to Barkhane commander General
Laurent Michon. Further reductions will take place by 2023. The decision came amid
mounting political instability in Mali, where Colonel Assimi Goita carried out two coups in less
than a year before being sworn in as the country’s interim president. Mali has been plagued
by a conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012, but
devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the central and northern
regions. Fighting has spread to neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, with
the deteriorating security situation in the region unleashing an acute humanitarian crisis.
In a separate but related development, the European Union has accused the Russian private
military contractor Wagner Group of human rights abuses and carrying out clandestine
operations on the Kremlin’s behalf. The bloc has imposed sanctions on the group, as well as
on eight individuals and three other energy companies in Syria accused of helping finance
the mercenaries in Ukraine, Libya and Syria. “The Wagner Group is responsible for serious
human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and
Mozambique,” the EU said in its official journal, listing torture and extrajudicial executions.
Russia has denied any wrongdoing. President Vladimir Putin has said private military
contractors have the right to work and pursue their interests anywhere in the world as long as
they do not break Russian law. Putin has said the Wagner Group neither represented the
Russian state nor was paid by the Russian state.

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