French forces begin northern Mali drawdown: 'The idea is not to create a vacuum'

France has begun to withdraw troops from its northernmost Malian bases, part of plans to reorganise its forces deployed in the restive Sahel region under "Operation Barkhane".

A French soldier keeps watch in Mali.
A French soldier keeps watch in Mali. © FRANCE 24 screengrab.

French army bases in Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu, in the north of the country, will be closed by the end of the year and handed over to the Malian army.

While air support will be maintained, the 5,100 French troops currently in the Sahel will be reduced to roughly 3,000. European special forces, deployed in the Takuba task force, will be in charge of supporting the Malian military in combat.

"The idea is not to create a vacuum. The idea is to leave the responsibility of these areas to the Malian state," said General Etienne du Peyroux of the French Barkhane force. "To avoid the risk of getting stuck in conflict, we need a response that is not only military."

>> France hits back at claim it is 'abandoning' Mali by withdrawing troops

After eight years of war against jihadist militants, swathes of Mali's territory remain outside the authorities' control.

For Hamidou Cissé of the Patriots of Mali group, the time has come to turn the page on the French intervention that started in 2013.

"After they arrived, we thought we would have peace," said Cissé. "If they withdraw today, in six months or a year, we will suffer, But it is better to suffer than to remain in their hands for ever."

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