French force in Sahel leaves Mali in vast operation
Niamey -The main French military base in Niger has become a hub of frantic activity for troops and equipment leaving neighbouring Mali. After nine years fighting jihadists in Mali, France is pulling its troops out of the country after falling out with its military junta, and reducing its presence in the wider Sahel region. “This disengagement from Mali is the biggest of our missions,” says Colonel Hubert Baudoin, the the deputy chief of the French anti-jihadist mission in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane. Commander Thierry, coordinator of logistical movements across the zone, agrees: “It’s a gigantic maneouvre.” Every day, two to three air convoys travel from a base in Gao, Mali, to the one in Niger’s capital Niamey. Two to three road convoys also make the trip each week between the cities almost 500 kilometres (around 300 miles) apart. After ties ruptured between Paris and the junta that took power in Mali in August 2020, the French began to withdraw in February. After Gossi and Menaka, the troops are due out of Gao by summer’s end. Dozing legionnaires At the Niamey base, forklifts shuffle around pallets, while armoured vehicles sit lined up as far as the eye can see. In all, France must fly home 1,000 vehicles and some 4,000 containers.Colonel Laurent Grebil, logistics manager for Operation Barkhane, has already overseen a departure from a military theatre, 10 years ago in northeast Afghanistan. But that was on a much smaller scale, he says. “Here the complexity of the maneouvre arises from the distances to be covered and the volume of equipment and men to get out in a limited time,” he says. “It will take a little less than a year to bring everything back to France.” At the Niamey military airport, the forklifts handle all kinds of goods, from camp beds to spare parts and electrical equipment, including fridges. Along the dusty road that crosses the base, French legionnaires doze under khaki tarpaulins hitched up between two armoured vehicles, after arriving a day earlier from escorting several dozen civilian vehicles from Gao. They must head back during the night, keeping to the tight deadlines imposed by the French presidency. The road connecting Niamey and Gao crosses semi-desert territory known as the “tri-border area” where the frontiers of Niger, Mali and Burkina converge.