PARIS, Feb 14 (Reuters) – The conditions are no longer in place to continue the fight against Islamist militants in Mali and President Emmanuel Macron has asked to re-organise French troops in the region, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday.
“If the conditions are no longer in place so that we can act in Mali, which is clearly the case, then we will continue to fight terrorism next door with the Sahel countries, who ” Le Drian told France 5.
France is considering withdrawing its troops from Mali, but adapting its strategy to prevent Islamist militancy spreading south may prove complex and contribute to uncertainty in the region.
A French drawdown would mean the European special forces Takuba task force would also leave with diplomats saying that the political, operational and legal conditions to remain becoming increasingly difficult.
Western foreign ministers and senior diplomats held crunch talks on their countries’ future presence fighting Islamist militants in Mali on Monday after three weeks of consultations amid deterioration in relations between Mali and France, the main foreign military power in the Sahel region.
Two European and one African diplomatic source said regional and international leaders would meet Wednesday for dinner in Paris to hold discussions with President Macron ahead of an EU-Africa summit on Thursday. The French presidency did not respond to requests for comment.
“The president wants us re-organise. We aren’t going, but we will re-organise to ensure the fight against terrorism continues,” Le Drian said.
Three diplomatic sources said the announcement on a withdrawal from Mali would be made this week.
A draft document seen by Reuters, distributed to countries involved in Mali that has yet to be approved, says that France and its Takuba partners had agreed to coordinate withdrawal of their military resources from Malian territory.
It is not clear what will happen to troops that withdraw from Mali. France has already cut troops in the Sahel with the aim of reducing numbers from around 5,000 to 2,500-3,000 by 2023. About half of its forces are based in Mali, so Paris would need to decide where to put them and maintain operational efficiency.
The Takuba mission has about 600-900 troops of which 40% are French and includes medical and logistical teams. It has been more of a symbolic force accompanying local troops.
Few diplomats believe it can survive a withdrawal from Mali, but Paris hopes to convince its allies to support countries in the Gulf of Guinea, notably Ivory Coast, Togo, Benin and Ghana, where there are concerns militancy is spreading due to porous borders.
(Reporting by John Irish Editing by Chris Reese and Alistair Bell)