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French Army Leaves Timbuktu for First Time Since Arriving in 2013

French troops have left a military base in Timbuktu, Mali, where they were posted since liberating the area from Islamist militants in 2013. French forces have been gradually withdrawing from the region, despite ongoing fighting with militants that threatens stability. Locals are expressing unease about the French troops’ departure.

On Tuesday, French troops left their military base in Timbuktu as part of a reorganization of Operation Barkhane announced by French president Emmanuel Macron in June. 

The Kidal and Tessalit bases were handed over to the Malian army in October and November, respectively. The French troops first set up a base here when the city, along with several others in northern Mali, was liberated in 2013 from Islamist militants. Then-French president Francois Hollande visited Timbuktu the day after its liberation and was welcomed by residents. 

Salem Ould El Hadj, a historian and a teacher at Timbuktu’s famous Ahmed Baba Institute, spoke from a public square by Timbuktu’s Sankore mosque about his experience when the city was liberated.  

We needed it, he says, and you’ve seen how the population welcomed them with widespread enthusiasm. An unabashed fervor. It’s true. I was in Bamako, he says, and it’s thanks to [the French intervention] that I came back to Timbuktu.

Since 2013, Mali has weathered two more coup d’etats. Violence and killings have increased and moved further south into the country’s center. Large protests in Bamako have called for the departure of French troops, with popular sentiment in the capital favoring a potential Russian intervention in Mali. 

 

Mohamed El Bashir, president of Timbuktu’s municipal youth council, says that withdrawing Barkhane troops from Timbuktu will make the region less secure.

It’s not the same feeling here, he says, because the people in Bamako don’t live what we’re living here in Timbuktu. What we’re living here, people in Bamako aren’t living. They should come here, and we will go to Bamako, and they can ask that Barkhane leaves, he says, then they will understand. That’s the reality.

France has been gradually retiring its troops from military bases in northern Mali and moving them to Gao, which will now serve as Operation Barkhane’s northern base. 

General Etienne du Peyroux, Barkhane’s representative in Mali, says that the handing over of Timbuktu’s military base is not an abandonment.  

He says, this is ultimately the goal of Operation Barkhane, to allow Mali to take its destiny in its hands. After a phase of preparation, after a phase of ramping up, after a training phase. And always in partnership, which will be different, with less of a physical presence but just as real, he says.  

At a ceremony on the military base yesterday, the French flag was lowered, the Malian flag raised, and a symbolic key to the base handed over from the French military to the Malian army. Malian military authorities declined to comment to journalists, who were asked to leave the ceremony before their commander spoke to Malian troops. 

French armored vehicles exited the base for the last time.

At the airport, French troops could be seen boarding a military plane headed for Gao. The fate of Timbuktu, once a symbol of Mali’s liberation from extremist rule, now rests in the hands of Mali’s army.

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