France-Niger: Paris to recall troops this week

French troops deployed in Niger will begin their withdrawal from the country “within the week”, the armed forces general staff said on Thursday. “We are going to launch the disengagement operation within the week, in good order, in security and in coordination with the Nigeriens”, said the general staff, at the end of a tug-of-war lasting more than two months with the military regime that emerged from the July 26 coup d’état against President Mohamed Bazoum. 
 On September 24, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of military cooperation with Niger and the gradual departure of the 1,400 French troops present in the Sahelian country “by the end of the year”, thus complying with the wishes of the new authorities, who have denounced the defense agreements linking Niamey to Paris.  

  “We’ll do what’s planned, it’ll go according to plan”, assures the French general staff, while the military regime has accused France of not being “in a logic to leave Niger” and seems reluctant to let departing troops maneuver freely. 

Some 1,000 French soldiers and airmen are deployed at the French air base in Niamey and 400 at Ouallam and Ayorou (north-west), alongside the Nigeriens, in the so-called “three borders” zone between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, a sanctuary for the Islamic State group. 
 Troops deployed at forward bases 
are expected to be the first to disengage. This pattern is similar to that in Mali, where the French withdrawal began with the three northernmost outposts. “We are taking steps to ensure the safety of the people involved in the maneuver”, said the general staff, particularly on the road linking the forward bases to the capital, which could require air support, against a backdrop of deteriorating security in the country following several attacks that have left dozens dead. 

 Time is running out. French soldiers are due to leave Niger by the end of the year. The French army therefore needs to find a logistics hub outside Niger to centralize the evacuated equipment before sending it back to France. The port of Cotonou would be an obvious choice, but for the moment the Niger authorities do not seem willing to open their border with Benin to French military convoys. 
troops leaving Niger “would not pass through Benin”, declared General Toumba, Niger’s Minister of the Interior. The two countries border each other.  
“Any direction but Benin”, he insisted. “Your planes will be dropped at the last minute”, he added, without giving any further details. 

The French armed forces have not commented on statements made by the junta, which in recent days has suggested that this technical coordination is not a foregone conclusion.  At least 60 soldiers were killed in Niger in the deadliest attack since the army staged a coup in July. 

 The Ministry of Defense had announced that 29 soldiers, mostly belonging to the Niger Special Forces, had been killed and two others wounded. 

But the media, citing civilian and security sources, estimate that “at least 60 bodies were buried” in Tillia in the presence of the minister, General Salifou Modi, who had announced that the militants had used improvised explosive devices and kamikaze vehicles to carry out the attacks. 

 The soldiers were ambushed on Monday by militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group. 

 The Ministry of Defense added that “several dozen terrorists” were also killed in the counter-offensive near the border with Mali.  Jihadist attacks against the army have multiplied since the military took power. 

The army was conducting operations to “neutralize the threat” posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (EI) group when troops were attacked, the ministry said in a statement. 

 The assailants “benefited from outside expertise”, the ministry said, without giving further details. 

 The recent upsurge in jihadist attacks in Niger has been linked to a security vacuum after soldiers were recalled to the capital, Niamey. 
Last Thursday, hundreds of militants on motorcycles killed 12 soldiers in southwest Niger. 

 At least 17 soldiers were killed last month in another attack near the border with Burkina Faso.        

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