Politicians in Mali have begun to give their reactions to news of the decision of France to withdraw its troops from the West African nation over a breakdown in relations with the country's ruling junta, after nearly 10 years of fighting a jihadist insurgency that still poses a major threat.
The deployment has been fraught with problems for France -- of the 53 French soldiers killed serving in West Africa's Sahel region, 48 died in Mali.
"Multiple obstructions" by the military junta that took power in August 2020 meant the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali, said a statement signed by France and its African and European allies.
Modibo Soumaré, head of party platform opposing the military government is full of regret. "The first reaction is to regret the context and the environment in which this is happening, because if we're honest, it's happening where relations are very tense between the Malian and French authorities. I believe that it is not the right time for this departure, even if it is a planned withdrawal, and we say that when there is a conflict at home, in the family, it is not the time to take your bags and leave. That's how it works in our culture. So it's already regrettable." Soumaré said.
The decision applies to both the 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a smaller European force of several hundred soldiers, called Takuba, that was created in 2020 with the aim of taking the burden off French forces.
"We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share," President Emmanuel Macron told a news conference, saying that he "completely" rejected the idea that France had failed its mission in the country.
He said that France's bases in Gossi, Menaka and Gao in Mali would be closed within the next four to six months. The withdrawal would be carried out in an "orderly" manner, he vowed.
For Nouhoum Sarr, member of junta-controlled National Transitional Council, there is no cause for alarm or worries. "Perhaps there will be a vacuum, in any case our Malian military experts are assessing the situation and Mali will do everything in its power to fill this vacuum. Perhaps with the support of other partners. But what is constant is that the will of the current authorities to reconquer the territory, to restore peace and security, is a will that is intact, it is a will that is unshakable." he said.
The announcement comes at a critical time for Macron, just days before he is expected to make a long-awaited declaration that he will stand for a second term at elections in April.
Macron's priority will now be to ensure that the withdrawal does not invite comparisons with the chaotic US departure from Afghanistan last year.
- 'Collapse of state' -
France first deployed the troops at Mali's request in 2013, and while the insurgents were prevented from reaching the capital Bamako, the insurgency was never fully quelled.
Two years later the rebels regrouped and moved into the centre of Mali, an ethnic powder keg, before launching raids on neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Now, new fears have emerged of a jihadist push toward the Gulf of Guinea.
"It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis between Mali and France," wrote French daily Le Monde.
Macron denied that the intervention had been in vain.
"What would have happened in 2013 if France had not chosen to intervene? You would for sure have had the collapse of the Malian state," he said, hailing the decision of his predecessor Francois Hollande to deploy troops.
France and its allies vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in the region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea, he said, adding that the outline of this action would be made clear in June.
Macron warned that Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group had made the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea nations "a priority for their strategy of expansion," and said the Takuba forces in Mali would be shifted to neighbouring Niger.
Speaking alongside Macron, Senegalese President Macky Sall said fighting "terrorism in the Sahel cannot be the business of African countries alone."
The announcement on Mali came ahead of a two-day summit of EU and African leaders in Brussels starting Thursday, which seeks to strengthen ties with pledges of new investments for a continent where China and Russia are making inroads.
- Wider impact -
Around 25,000 foreign troops are currently deployed in the Sahel.
They include around 4,600 French soldiers in the mission known as Barkhane, though France last year had already announced the start of a drawdown of the force, which at its peak comprised 5,400 troops.
Army chief of staff spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni said the Mali withdrawal would mean that within six months there would be 2,500 to 3,000 French soldiers deployed across the region.
In Mali specifically, there is also the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, established in 2013, and EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission for the Malian army.
Macron said France would still provide air and medical support for MINUSMA in the coming months before transferring these responsibilities.
Olivier Salgado, the spokesman for MINUSMA, told AFP that France's pullout was "bound to impact" the mission and the UN would "take the necessary steps to adapt."
In Berlin, German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said she was "very sceptical" that the country's mission in the EUTM could continue in the light of the French decision.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc was awaiting "guarantees" from Mali's military rulers as it weighs the future of its military and civilian training missions.
Relations between France and Mali plunged after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position, a move that gives Moscow a new foothold in the region.
Macron accused Wagner of sending more than 800 fighters to the country for the sake of its own "business interests" and shoring up the junta.