French troops were preparing to leave the Malian city of Timbuktu on Tuesday, in a symbolic departure more than eight years after Paris first intervened in the conflict-torn Sahel state.
French president Francois Hollande formally declared the start of France’s military intervention, in February 2013, designed to root out jihadist insurgents.
A few days prior, French legionnaires and Malian troops had liberated Timbuktu, a northern desert city, after an eight-month Islamist occupation.
“Some people were overcome by emotion, women were crying, young people were shouting, I myself was overwhelmed,” said Yehia Tandina, a Timbuktu television journalist, recalling the day.
Mohamed Ibrahim, the former president of the Timbuktu regional council, also described the day as “joyful” and “beautiful”.
But now French troops are leaving their base in Timbuktu, raising questions about the future of jihadist activity as militants put down roots in the countryside.
Since 2013, Paris has deployed around 5,100 troops across the Sahel region — which includes Mali — helping to support local governments and their poorly equipped forces fight an ever-growing Islamist insurgency.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in June, after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that ousted the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France’s military deployment in the Sahel is due to fall to about 3,000 troops by next year.
French forces have already left bases in the northern Malian towns of Kidal and Tessalit.
Most jihadists in the region are affiliated to al-Qaeda. In their propaganda, they boast that they control the territory and have won the hearts of locals.