Niger junta says French withdrawal will begin with 400 soldiers in southwest

NIAMEY (Reuters) -Niger’s junta said late on Thursday that 400 French soldiers based in the southwestern town of Ouallam would be the first to pack up in a withdrawal that is dealing a further blow to France’s influence in the conflict-hit Sahel region.

The departure of French forces from Niger has been a key demand of the military officers who seized power in July – one of a series of recent coups in West Africa’s Sahel that has drastically reshaped its decade-long battle with insurgents linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

France initially resisted, refusing to accept the legitimacy of the junta. But last month President Emmanuel Macron decided to end military cooperation with Niger and pull out all 1,500 French troops, leaving a gaping hole in Western efforts to counter the insurgency.

The town of Ouallam is on the front line of Niger’s security crisis, and holds thousands of people displaced from surrounding villages after years of attacks by armed groups.

“The 400 French soldiers based in Ouallam will be the first to pack up and go,” the junta said in a statement read out on national radio.

The junta also said an aerial base in the capital Niamey, where the majority of French soldiers are stationed, would be dismantled by the end of the year.

There was no immediate comment from France, whose influence over its former African colonies has diminished in the last three years as coup leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have severed ties amid a wave of anti-French sentiment.

Paris said on Thursday that the withdrawal from Niger would begin this week and be completed by the end of the year, but did not provide further details.

Since the coup, crowds of junta supporters have camped outside the Niamey base demanding the troops’ departure.

They accuse France of exerting excessive influence and failing to resolve the security crisis that has killed thousands and displaced millions across the region.

Some analysts say the military juntas in the Sahel are using France as a scapegoat for hard-to-solve problems.

Violence has soared in Burkina Faso and Mali since they booted out French troops in the wake of their coups in 2020-2022, conflict data shows.

(Reporting by Abdel-Kader MazouAdditional reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten in ParisWriting by Sofia Christensen and Alessandra PrenticeEditing by Christina Fincher and Edward McAllister)