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French troops leave Mali's Timbuktu after eight years

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THOMAS COEX/AFP or licensors


French troops will leave Timbuktu on Tuesday in what is a major drawdown nine years deployment in the sahelian nation.

It was there that then French president Francois Hollande formally declared the start of France's military intervention, in February 2013, designed to root out jihadist insurgents.

Paris has since deployed around 5,100 troops across the Sahel region, which includes Mali, helping to support local governments and their forces fight an ever-growing Islamist insurgency that has left thousands dead.

But after leaving the Kidal and Tessal bases in north Mali, French troops are now packing up in Timbuktu, the last of three bases in the far north of the country.

"We're training Malian forces in holding their ground and in guiding air support before they take over from us," a commander in charge of the withdrawal in Timbuktu told AFP giving only his rank, captain, and first name, Florian.

All the material is being sent south by road to the French base in Gao.

"Everything is being sorted, labelled, then either destroyed, re-used here or sent back to France," Florian explained, surrounded by piles of camp beds as well as spare parts for vehicles.

A few days prior, French legionnaires and Malian troops had liberated the northern desert city, after an eight-month Islamist occupation.

"Some people were overcome by emotion, women were crying, young people were shouting, I myself was overwhelmed," said Yehia Tandina, a Timbuktu television journalist, recalling the day.

Mohamed Ibrahim, the former president of the Timbuktu regional council, also described the day as "joyful" and "beautiful".

But now French troops are leaving their base in Timbuktu, raising questions about the future of jihadist activity as militants put down roots in the countryside.

Mathieu, a French sergeant, was part of the original contingent of French soldiers who arrived in Mali, and has returned to the Timbuktu base for the handover ceremony. "We've come full circle," he said, smiling. 

Jihadists attacks have grown more frequent in Mali since 2013, and the conflict has spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

In November, protesters in Burkina Faso and Niger hampered a large French military supply convoy travelling from Ivory Coast to Mali. Some threw stones and held signs saying "Down with France".

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