France completes withdrawal of troops from northern base in Niger as part of planned departure

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — France has completed the withdrawal of troops from a northern base in Niger as part of a planned departure from the West African country in the wake of July’s military coup.

Nearly 200 troops, 28 trucks and two dozen armored vehicles left the Ouallam military base, which has been handed to Niger, a junta spokesman, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, said Sunday.

France’s withdrawal is expected to be complete by the end of the year. Some 1,500 French troops have been operating in Niger, training its military and conducting joint operations.

The announcement comes weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France will end its military presence in Niger and pull its ambassador out of the country as a result of the coup that removed President Mohamed Bazoum.

Bazoum has been under house arrest with his wife and son for nearly three months, and the junta has cut off his electricity and water.

Last week, people close to Bazoum were unable to reach him for several days and the junta accused him of trying to escape with his family, sparking concern as to his whereabouts. On Monday, a lawyer for Bazoum told The Associated Press he was able to make one phone call on the weekend to say he was OK, but that they no longer had regular contact with him.

“He’s at home, his doctor has been able to visit him and he’s safe and sound. But we no longer have direct contact with him as their phones have been taken,” said Reed Brody, an American lawyer on Bazoum’s team.

The junta accused Bazoum of trying to flee with a getaway car and the help of two helicopters belonging to a “foreign power.” Those claims could not be confirmed.

Niger had been seen as the last country in the Sahel, the vast expanse below the Sahara Desert, that Western nations could partner with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Analysts warn that France’s withdrawal will leave a security vacuum that extremists could exploit.

In the month after the junta seized power, violence primarily linked to the extremists soared by more than 40%, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Mednick is the West and Central Africa reporter for the Associated Press. She focuses on conflict, humanitarian crises and human rights abuses.