TIMBUKTU, Mali: French officers handed over the keys to a military base in the Malian city of Timbuktu on Tuesday, after a nearly nine-year deployment.
The ceremony took place near the city’s airport, with Malian army officers, officials from the local government and the United Nations attending.
The French flag was lowered and the Malian flag raised in its place on the base, where a force of about 150 soldiers have remained after Paris began withdrawing troops having liberated the city from extremists in 2013.
General Etienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Operation Barkhane anti-extremist campaign in Mali, shook hands with the new camp commander and offered him a large wooden key as a French military plane made a low flyover.
The highly symbolic departure comes after French forces already left bases in the northern towns Kidal and Tessalit this year, even though the extremist-driven violence in the Sahel state shows no signs of easing.
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.”
The new Malian commander did not speak.
It was in Timbuktu on February 2, 2013 that former French president Francois Hollande declared the start of France’s military intervention in the conflict-torn country.
Just a few days earlier, French legionnaires and Malian troops had liberated the northern desert city after an eight-month extremist 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.
With the departure of French troops, there are now questions about the future of extremist 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 — aiming to support local governments and their poorly equipped forces fighting an ever-growing insurgency.
However, extremist attacks have grown more frequent. An insurgency that began in Mali has spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in June, however, after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that ousted the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France’s deployment in the Sahel is due to fall to about 3,000 troops by next year.
“For us, this is a page that is turning,” Captain Florian, former base commander, told reporters. “But the mission continues. My soldiers and I will continue our mission in Mali.”
The French were greeted as liberators when they entered Timbuktu in 2013.
Hollande also described the day French soldiers retook the city as “the best day of his political life.”
But after nearly nine years the extremists in the region are still active. Whether France’s military mission can be described as a success is a sensitive question.
Master Corporal Julien, a French soldier who was in Timbuktu in 2013 and returned for the handover, said: “We have to hope that things will get better for civilians.”
Outside the city, locals appear to have come to terms with the extremists, according to security officials and Western diplomats.
An acceptance of their legitimacy, at least among locals, may have also decreased violence.
“Where there is coexistence, there will certainly be fewer negative acts,” said Tandina, the journalist, noting improved security in the Timbuktu region.
According to the UN, militant attacks on civilians in Timbuktu and the surrounding area are at their lowest since 2015.
Still, Westerners cannot travel outside the city without an armed escort.
The central government, which is supported by the UN inside the city, is largely invisible in the countryside.
Most extremists 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.
Paris has said it remains militarily committed to Mali, and that it plans to refocus its energies on strengthening an international task force of special forces, known as Takuba.
Its troop reduction is occurring amid heightened tensions with Mali’s army-dominated government — first provoked after last year’s coup — as well as growing local opposition to the French presence across the region.