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Thousands in Mali celebrate planned departure of French troops

Protesters burn a European Union flag during a demonstration to celebrate France’s announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on February 19, 2022. (Photo by AFP)

Thousands of anti-French demonstrators have poured into the streets of the Malian capital, Bamako, to celebrate the planned withdrawal of French troops from their country.

On Saturday, Malians burned a European flag as demonstrators carried placards with messages such as “Thanks Wagner” and “France is a terrorist nation,” amid simmering tensions between the West African country and its former colonial power.

The Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), has allegedly been operating in Mali since December 2021, with France and its allies expressing concerns about the deployment of Russian contractors in the African country.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin in a press conference with his French counterpart in Moscow on February 7 declared that the Russian Federation has nothing to do with private military organizations that are operating in Mali.

Although France remains the only Western country with a significant military presence in the Sahel, its relationship with its former African colonies has grown increasingly tense in recent months. This has led to an evident increase in anti-French sentiment.

In the latest bout of violence, eight soldiers and 60 terrorists were killed in clashes with armed Takfiri militants in the northeast of Mali, the Malian army said on Saturday.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are struggling to contain armed militants linked to al-Qaeda and Daesh that control swathes of territory in the porous border area of the West African Sahel, a region larger than the size of Germany.

The blow to the terrorists comes as Mali on Friday asked France to withdraw troops from its territory “without delay,” calling into question Paris’ plan for a four- to six-month departure.

Paris had declared on Thursday that it would withdraw thousands of its troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the country, a decade after launching a war without the initial approval of the United Nations or the French parliament.

A statement signed by France and its African and European allies said on Thursday that “multiple obstructions” meant the conditions were no longer in place to operate in Mali.

The decision applies to the 2,400 French troops in Mali, where France first deployed in 2013, and a European force of several hundred soldiers that was created in 2020.

Relations between Paris and Bamako have deteriorated since the ruling military took power in August 2020.

The conflict has caused several thousand deaths and more than a million people to flee their homes. There have been two military coups in little over a year, amid growing demonstrations against France’s military presence.

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