Bamako - Dozens of French forces have left the northern
Malian town of Timbuktu several months after their military operation largely
ousted radical Islamic fighters from the area, a French military official said
The reallocation of about 100 French soldiers to the north-eastern
town of Gao will pose a critical test as to whether Malian soldiers and their
counterparts from neighbouring nations will be able to maintain security in the
area still threatened by jihadists.
Soldiers from neighboring Burkina Faso officially took over
last week in Timbuktu, and French soldiers are now departing, according to Colonel
"We are leaving a small detachment of 20 men who are
going to operate with the Burkinabe battalion," he said. "This
detachment is going to stay in Timbuktu while the Burkinabes are there."
France's defence minister visited Gao on Friday, where he
gave reassurances that France intends to keep 1 000 soldiers in its former
colony by the end of the year even as it downscales from its deployment high of
about 4 000.
While the French-led mission that began in January helped
chase the jihadists into the desert, many fear they could return and attempt
new attacks once France leaves.
French forces parachuted into Timbuktu in late January to
liberate the fabled city from the radical Islamic fighters who had occupied it
for 10 months. The al-Qaeda-linked militants imposed their harsh interpretation
of Islamic law, requiring women to wear the veil and carrying out public
Fighters claiming allegiance to al-Qaeda's African wing,
though, have led a series of suicide attacks recently.
In a bold raid indicating that the extremists remain
entrenched and able to strike, the jihadists succeeded in infiltrating not just
the town, but also the main military base, forcing the French to scramble
fighter jets over the city.
The UN peacekeepers are now supposed to take over in July
from a 6 000-member African-led mission now in Mali, although the deployment
date is subject to change depending on security conditions.
The UN force will be tasked with helping to restore peace.
However, it will not be authorised to launch offensive
military operations or chase terrorists in the desert, which French forces will
continue to do.
Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a
security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over the country's
north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic
jihadists who carried out public executions, amputations and whippings.
When the Islamists started moving into government-controlled
areas in the south, France launched a military offensive on January 11 to oust
them. The fighters, many linked to al-Qaeda, fled the major towns in the north,
but many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks
including suicide bombings.