25 May 2013

France begins military withdrawal from Mali

9:15 pm on 25 May 2013

France has begun the first major stage of its military withdrawal from Mali, four months after sending troops to push Islamist rebels out the north.

On Saturday a convoy of lorries left a French base outside the capital, Bamako, on its way south to Ivory Coast.

France began withdrawing some of its 4000 troops from the country in April. The plan is to gradually hand over to the Malian army and a United Nations peacekeeping force, which will deploy in July ahead of planned nationwide elections.

Saturday's withdrawal comes just two days after Islamist rebels targeted an army barracks and French-run uranium mine in neighbouring Niger, killing 21 people. French special forces helped Nigerian soldiers end a hostage siege at the barracks on Friday.

It is not known if the attacks will affect French troop deployments.

Withdrawal dreaded by most Malians

The BBC's correspondent in Bamako says the French intervention has been immensely popular, and most Malians have dreaded the beginning of the withdrawal.

The intervention in January was prompted by Islamist rebels' growing control of the north and their advance further south towards Bamako.

Within weeks of launching their offensive, French and Malian soldiers, backed by fighter jets and helicopters, had forced the rebels out of urban areas. However, some retreated to hideouts in the mountains and desert, from where they have launched isolated attacks.

France still has 3800 troops in its former colony. It says their number will be down to 2000 by September and 1000 by the end of the year.

The UN's Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) is to be composed of 11,200 soldiers and 1440 police officers. Its aim will be to help establish stability and rebuild the Malian armed forces.