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France Tries to Calm Fears Over Mali Pullout

  • Henry Ridgwell

France is planning to start withdrawing its troops from Mali later this month. This follows the intervention in January aimed at driving out Islamist militants who had taken the north of the country. France is trying to reassure Mali that the pullout is not premature.

In the skies and on the ground, the French Foreign Legion patrols the remote mountains of northern Mali. The troops call this region 'Planet Mars.' The rugged Terz Valley is being used as a hideout by Islamist militants who were driven out of Mali's northern towns and cities.

The patrol captain gives only his first name, Clement.

"The herders have no vehicles and there have been no tourists here for a long time," he said. "In all of this zone there has only been jihadists, no civilians, no women, no children, no nomads. It was really a sanctuary for jihadists."

French troop withdrawal

France is due to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali at the end of this month. Visiting Bamako Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius assured his Malian counterpart that it would not be an "overnight" pullout.

Fabius said this is the direction that needs to be taken, that there will be different political movements with their free political ideas, and it is necessary that a path of dialogue is found.

France will gradually hand over to a United Nations-backed African force of 6,300 in the next few weeks, before an expected U.N. peacekeeping force arrives in July. French troops will make up some of that contingent.

Paul Melly, from policy institute Chatham House, said, "Of course there's always a risk that the jihadists may try to re-stage some sort of comeback, but you've got the Chadians still in force in northern Mali and they're going to be continuing the battle against jihadist elements, and one suspects that actually the French will keep some units, particularly special forces."

EU training base

Sixty kilometers north of Bamako, the European Union is building a training base to improve the capability of the Malian army, which analysts say is poorly paid and ill-equipped. In addition to French trainers, there are soldiers from several European countries.

Lieutenant Colonel Laurent Vieillefosse, who is the commander, said "For the Malian forces, we want to train a battalion of men in 10 weeks. We will proceed step by step."

A battalion, in this case, is 650 men.

Malian Foreign Minister Tieman Send Coulibaly said there is a long rebuilding process ahead for his country's army.

"We need many things," he said. "We need personal arms, we need flak jackets, for example, and helmets. But above all we need to build a republican spirit."

The reconciliation process will be difficult, but not impossible, said Melly of Chatham House. "Northern Mali had many problems but it's a socially complex area, it's not dominated by any one ethnic group. And the jihadists never had the support of more than a very small slice of the population."

Melly said that Mali is trying to rebuild the nation as quickly as possible. The president has announced elections for July, despite fears that such a short timeframe will prove impractical.
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