A French Army military vehicle belonging to a convoy of French troops is seen crossing the Lazaret district in Niamey on October 10, 2023. A new page has been turned for France with the departure of the first French soldiers from Niger in a ground convoy under local escort, from the west of the country to a destination that could be Chad, according to several security sources. The withdrawal of the French troops had been demanded by Niger’s generals shortly after they came to power in a coup at the end of July, and French President Emmanuel Macron announced their departure at the end of September. (Photo by AFP)
(AFP) – The French army said Tuesday it had begun withdrawing troops from Niger after being ordered out by the leaders of a coup that ousted the president and Paris ally.
The move kicks off a complex and fraught process that Paris expects to be completed by the end of the year, drawing the curtain on another French anti-jihadist operation in Africa.
“The first troops have left,” the spokesman for the French chief of staff told AFP, confirming an announcement Monday by Niger‘s military leadership, which said the 1,400-strong French contingent would start leaving Tuesday.
A convoy of soldiers with trucks transporting equipment and armoured vehicles from western Niger arrived in the capital Niamey around midday on Tuesday, an AFP journalist saw.
A French defence source said a first group of soldiers considered a priority for evacuation for health or humanitarian reasons flew out of Niger on Monday.
Niamey had spoken of convoys of troops being escorted out of the country overland by the Nigerien army, without saying where they would go.
The regime said Friday the withdrawal would take place “safely”.
There has been no official word on where the French convoys are ultimately headed.
According to security sources, they are expected to head towards Chad via more than 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of roads and tracks to reach the capital N’Djamena, where French forces in the Sahel command are based.
– Logistical headache –
The withdrawal was expected to cause logistical headaches for the French, with few safe routes out of a region plagued by myriad jihadist groups.
Niger‘s land borders with Benin and Nigeria have been closed since the July 26 coup.
Niamey forbids French flights over its territory.
Around 1,000 French troops were stationed in Niamey, with another 400 deployed at two forward bases in the north-west, near Mali and Burkina Faso, a hotbed of insurgent activity.
France had reinforced its presence in Niger, adding armoured vehicles and helicopters to the drones and fighter jets that were already deployed.
It is the third time in 18 months that French troops have been sent packing by a former African colony, dealing a severe blow to France‘s influence on the continent and prestige on the international stage.
France‘s ambassador to Niger was also given his marching orders by the leaders of the coup that toppled French-backed President Mohamed Bazoum.
He returned to Paris on September 27, prompting celebrations in Niamey.
– Pivot away from Paris –
Niamey’s military rulers had labelled the announcement of France‘s diplomatic and troop withdrawals in September as a “step towards the sovereignty of Niger“.
Mali and Burkina Faso, which have also undergone coups in the past two years, have also turned their backs on France, accusing it of a colonialist attitude and of failing to effectively combat jihadists.
Mali has pivoted towards Moscow, bringing in mercenaries from the notorious Wagner group.
In Niger, anti-French demonstrators have also been seen waving Russian flags — scenes in stark contrast to rejoicing that greeted French troops in 2013 when they helped liberate northern Mali from Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents.
Niger had in recent months been acting as a regional hub for French troops helping armies in the region fight Islamist insurgents.
French President Emmanuel Macron initially attempted to keep his troops and ambassador in the country, arguing that only the ousted Bazoum had the authority to request their withdrawal.
In late September however, he gave into pressure to bring them home after months of anti-French protests.
France still insists, however, that Bazoum’s ousted government remains the sole legitimate authority.
The former president remains under house arrest in Niamey.
The United States still has about 1,100 military personnel in the country but after Macron‘s announcement said last month it would “evaluate” its next steps.
© Agence France-Presse