French troops complete Niger withdraw

Supporters of Niger's ruling junta gather at the start of a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference in Niamey, Niger, Aug. 3, 2023. [File, VOA]

The last French troops are to withdraw from Niger on Friday, marking an end to more than a decade of French anti-jihadist operations in West Africa's Sahel region.

The French exit from Niger leaves hundreds of U.S. military personnel, and a number of Italian and German troops, remaining in the country.

France said it would pull out its roughly 1,500 soldiers and pilots from Niger after the former French colony's new ruling generals demanded they depart following the coup on July 26.

It was the third time in less than 18 months that French troops were sent packing from a country in the Sahel.

They were forced to leave fellow former colonies Mali last year and Burkina Faso earlier this year following military takeovers in those countries too.

All three nations are battling a jihadist insurgency that erupted in northern Mali in 2012, later spreading to Niger and Burkina Faso.

But a string of coups in the region since 2020 have seen relations nosedive with former colonial power France and a pivot towards greater rapprochement with Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron in September announced the withdrawal of all French troops from Niger by the end of the year, with a first contingent leaving in October.

The Nigerien army said last week their departure would be complete by Friday.

Perilous desert routes

Most French troops in Niger are at an air base in the capital, Niamey.

Smaller groups have been deployed alongside Nigerien soldiers to the border with Mali and Burkina Faso, where jihadist groups linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida are believed to operate.

The withdrawal is a complex operation, with road convoys having to drive up to 1,700 kilometers on sometimes perilous desert routes to the French center for Sahel operations in neighboring Chad.

The first French road convoy of troops withdrawing from Niger arrived in neighboring Chad's capital, N'Djamena, in October, after 10 days on the road.

From Chad, French troops can leave by air with their most sensitive equipment, although most of the rest has to be moved by land and sea.

According to a source close to the matter, some of the French containers carrying equipment will be driven from Chad on to the port of Douala in Cameroon, before they can be ferried back to France by sea.

US, German troops

France's former ally in Niger, overthrown President Mohamed Bazoum, remains under house arrest.

A U.S. official said in October that Washington was keeping about 1,000 military personnel in Niger but was no longer actively training or assisting Niger forces.

The United States said earlier this month it was ready to resume cooperation with Niger on the condition its military regime committed to a rapid transition to civilian rule.

Niger's rulers want up to three years for a transition back to a civilian government.

Military leaders in Niamey early this month said they were ending two European Union security and defense missions in the country.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius visited Niger earlier this week to discuss the fate of around 120 German troops based in the country.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in September banded together in a joint defense pact to fight jihadists.

France's withdrawal from Mali last year left a bitter aftertaste, after the bases it once occupied in Menaka, Gossi and Timbuktu were rapidly taken over by the Wagner Russian paramilitary group.