French military forces have left Timbuktu, nearly nine years after they helped Malian troops push back and recapture the city from Islamist insurgents that have overrun parts of the country.
The withdrawal is the latest sign the former colonial power is scaling down its presence in northern Mali, despite a continuing threat from jihadists. It also had high symbolic value as it is here that former French President François Hollande formalised the start of French military intervention in February 2, 2013.
Mali has been plagued by a conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012.
On Tuesday, the French flag was lowered and the Malian flag raised in its place at a military base. General Etienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Operation Barkhane military campaign in Mali, handed over a symbolic large wooden key to a Malian officer before his about 150 troops pulled out of their base on Tuesday.
France “will be present in a different way”, said du Peyroux. “This is ultimately the aim of Operation Barkhane: To allow Mali to take its destiny into its own hands … but always in partnership.”
In a statement, the French military emphasised that the Malian military maintains “a strong garrison in Timbuktu”, in addition to nearly 2,200 United Nations peacekeepers who are permanently deployed there.
Relations with Mali’s government have soured since two military coups by Colonel Assimi Goita in less than a year before being sworn in as the country’s interim president. Earlier this year, France said it would withdraw more than 2, 000 troops from the Sahel region by early 2022, refocus its military efforts on neutralising rebel operations, and strengthen and train local armies.