NIAMEY (Reuters) – French military convoys have begun withdrawing from bases in southwest Niger, marking the start of a departure demanded by Niger’s junta that has dealt a further blow to France’s influence in West Africa’s conflict-hit Sahel region.
Pickup trucks and armoured personnel carriers laden with French troops drove through the dusty outskirts of the capital Niamey on Tuesday, a Reuters reporter said, after the junta late on Monday said the withdrawal would kick off the following day.
In a statement read on state television, the military government called for citizens’ cooperation with the troop movements that it said would involve some of the 1,500 French soldiers leaving Niger via road to Chad, a journey of hundreds of kilometres through sometimes insecure territory.
A few dozen French servicemen flew out of Niger on a military plane on Monday, an airport worker and two other sources familiar with the flight said.
The French foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A joint France-Niger withdrawal plan, seen by Reuters, said Niger’s military would provide security back-up to the French convoys withdrawing by land.
Following weeks of pressure from the military officers who seized power in July, France last month agreed to withdraw its troops based in Niger, marking a definitive breakdown in military ties with its former colony amid a wave of anti-French sentiment in the region.
French forces have also been kicked out of neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso since their militaries seized power, leaving a gaping hole in international efforts to counter the decade-old Islamist insurgency in the Sahel, and exacerbating Western concerns over Russia’s expanding influence in Africa.
(Reporting by Abdel-Kader Mazou and Boureima Balima; Additional reporting and writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Alessandra Prentice and Jonathan Oatis)