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France to decide soon on military’s future in Mali

February 2, 2022 GMT

PARIS (AP) — France’s government will decide in the coming days whether to maintain its long-running military involvement in Mali, the foreign minister said Wednesday amid growing tensions in the West African country.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian pledged to keep France’s anti-terrorism operations in the broader Sahel region, but didn’t rule out withdrawing all of France’s troops from junta-led Mali.

Le Drian suggested that a complete French military pull-out from the country could be part of discussions with African partners in the region.

“We are discussing with partners the number of troops we’d need to keep in order to continue the fight against terrorism,” Le Drian said in an interview with the public broadcaster France 2. “The situation cannot remain as it is.”

Mali has been battling an Islamic insurgency in the north since 2012. In 2013 France intervened — at the request of Malian leaders — to stop jihadists who had seized swaths of the sprawling country. The operation was later extended to other countries in an effort to stabilize the broader Sahel region that includes Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauretania.

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In July, President Emmanuel Macron announced a drawdown of French troops in the Sahel force by early 2022.

On Tuesday, when questioned by French lawmakers, Le Drian said “The fight against terrorism will continue” in the Sahel and in support of Gulf of Guinea countries, which are increasingly facing jihadist incursions in their northern regions.

On Monday, the Malian interim government ordered the French ambassador to leave the West African country, accusing France of undermining its control. Last week Mali ordered Danish soldiers deployed in the French-led Takuba military operation to leave.

Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop criticized French officials on Malian television Monday for “unacceptable” comments that “questioned the legality and legitimacy” of Mali’s current leaders.

France paints the tensions as broader. “It’s not a Franco-Malian issue, it’s an issue between the international community and Mali,” Le Drian told lawmakers on Tuesday. He accused Malian authorities of undermining the work of French and European troops and flouting their own constitution.

“Mali’s isolation is such today that it has only one partner: Mercenaries” from Russian security group Wagner, which has been accused of rights abuses in other countries, Le Drian said.

France also warned of imminent EU sanctions, which are under discussion. Prime Minister Jean Castex accused Mali’s junta of further isolating itself by delaying elections until 2026 and courting Russian mercenaries.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Germany is discussing with European and international partners - particularly France on how to proceed with her country’s own deployment in Mali.

“In view of the Malian government’s latest steps, we must ask ourselves honestly whether the conditions for the success of our joint commitment are still there,” Baerbock was quoted Wednesday as telling the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Our deployment is not an end in itself.”

Norwegian Defense Minister Odd Roger Enoksen told lawmakers on Tuesday that Norway wouldn’t send a small contingent to Mali’s Takuba international task force, a commitment the previous center-right government in the Scandinavian country had made.

Enoksen said there had been negotiations with Mali but “it was not possible to achieve a sufficient legal framework with Mali that would ensure the safety of our soldiers,” according to the Norwegian news agency NTB.