Bamako (Mali): Dozens of French forces have left the northern Malian town of Timbuktu several months after their military operation largely ousted radical Islamic fighters from the area, a French military official said on Sunday.
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 neighbouring nations will be able to maintain security in the area still threatened by jihadists.
Soldiers from neighbouring 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 defence 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.