French President Emmanuel Macron is set to announce Thursday a partial withdrawal of French troops deployed in the Sahel region of Africa for almost a decade to battle jihadist insurgents, three sources with knowledge of the plan told AFP.
The issue is set to be discussed at a defence council meeting ahead of a rare press conference by Macron later in the day, the sources said, asking not to be identified by name.
The French army declined to comment when contacted by AFP.
France currently has 5,100 troops in the arid and volatile Sahel region, which stretches across Africa under the Sahara desert and spans half a dozen countries.
The Barkhane operation dates back to an initial deployment undertaken from January 2013 as Paris sought to respond to growing instability in the region caused by Islamist militants.
For years Macron has tried to get Western allies to help shoulder the burden of an anti-terror fight that aims to stop Islamist extremists from exploiting anger over poverty and ineffective governments.
The killing in April of the veteran leader of Chad, a close Paris ally, and a coup in Mali last month have also underlined the threat posed by continued political instability in the region.
A jihadist foothold in the region could make it easier to send over fighters to Europe to carry out terror attacks, officials warn.
But despite some successes for France’s Barkhane force including last year’s killing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, insurgents have continued to carry out deadly attacks.
And so far only a few hundred soldiers are participating in the international Takuba task force, including Estonians and Czechs, and Macron has failed to secure significant contributions from France’s larger European allies.
A joint anti-terror force by the G5 nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — remains plagued by a lack of equipment, funds and training.
The anti-insurgency effort has cost the lives of 50 French soldiers, prompting calls in France for a review of Barkhane’s mission and speculation that Macron was ready to bring some troops home.
“Changes that are likely to be significant will be made to our military deployment in the Sahel when the time comes, but they will not be made immediately,” Macron said in February after a video summit with the leaders of the G5 countries.
– Security vacuum? –
In the Sahel region itself the presence of French forces is also rejected by some politicians and locals as a colonial throwback.
The announcement by Macron could force security in the Sahel up the agenda of a meeting of G7 leaders in Britain from Friday to Sunday, and a summit of the NATO military alliance in Brussels on June 14.
The Sahel is seen by many Western politicians and experts as a major risk because of the growing strength of jihadist groups there, as well as its role as a crossroads for arms and people-smuggling.
Leaders of the G5 nations have warned Macron in February they would be hard pressed to keep insurgents from making further inroads in case of a rapid French pullout.
Since then, the veteran leader of Chad and close French ally, Idriss Deby Itno, has been killed, while Mali has suffered a second coup in nine months that has badly strained relations with Paris.
Last week, France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces and stopped providing defence advice, pending “guarantees” that the country’s military rulers will hold elections in February.