The reallocation of about 100 French soldiers to the northeastern town of Gao will pose a critical test as to whether Malian soldiers and their counterparts from neighboring 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 Col. Cyrille Zimmer.
“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 defense 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 whippings.
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.
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 authorized 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.