France army in key Mali withdrawal

The BBC's Alex Duval Smith watched as the French convoy began its journey from Mali to Ivory Coast

France has begun a key stage of its military withdrawal from Mali, four months after sending troops to push Islamist rebels out from the north.

A convoy of dozens of lorries left a base outside the capital, Bamako, on its way south to Ivory Coast.

France began withdrawing some of its 4,000 troops from the country in April.

They plan to gradually hand over to the Malian army and a UN peacekeeping force, which will deploy in July ahead of planned nationwide elections.

Saturday's withdrawal comes just two days after Islamist rebels targeted an army barracks and French-run uranium mine in neighbouring Niger, killing 21 people. French special forces helped Nigerien soldiers end a hostage siege at the barracks on Friday.

It is not known if the attacks will affect French troop deployments.

'Surplus to requirements'

The French intervention in Mali in January was prompted by Islamist rebels' increasing control of the north and their advance further south towards Bamako.

The militants had taken advantage of weak central government after a coup in March 2012 and the inability of Malian forces to secure territory. Major towns such as Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu fell, and a strict form of Islamic law was imposed.

Map

Within weeks of launching their offensive, French and Malian soldiers, backed by fighter jets and helicopters, forced the rebels out of urban areas. However, some fighters retreated to hideouts in the mountains and desert, from where they have launched isolated attacks.

The BBC's Alex Duval Smith in Bamako says the French intervention has been immensely popular, and most Malians have dreaded the beginning of the withdrawal.

The convoy leaving Bamako for Abidjan is impressive in its size, but the French insist it is simply carrying equipment and vehicles that are surplus to requirements, our correspondent adds.

Tanks and most heavy patrol vehicles will remain in northern Mali for now.

France still has 3,800 troops in its former colony. It says their number will be down to 2,000 by September and 1,000 by the end of the year.

The United Nations' Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (Minusma) is to be composed of 11,200 soldiers and 1,440 police officers. The force says it will be deployed to help establish stability and to rebuild the Malian armed forces.

Last week, more than $4bn (£2.6bn) was pledged at an international donor conference in Brussels to fund the Malian government's plan for a "total relaunch of the country".

It includes rebuilding government institutions, repairing damaged infrastructure, organising presidential elections, holding dialogue with rebel groups in the north and stimulating the economy.

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