French army watches for bombs and potholes as it withdraws from Mali base

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GOSSI, Mali, April 27 (Reuters) – The French army left a remote base in northern Mali before dawn last week for the last time, with 100 vehicles forming a mile-long convoy across the arid desert terrain .

Helicopters swirled above, air support for hundreds of soldiers in trucks and armored cars leaving the camp near the town of Gossi. A team of sappers led the way, looking for explosives hidden on the sandy ground.

“We are in the middle of the desert, on a road with big potholes and with a real direct risk of enemies who can lay mines or attack us with a car bomb,” said Lt. Imran, a member of a tactical team in charge of protecting the convoy.

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This is what France’s withdrawal from northern Mali looks like: laborious and slow, through hostile territory that its forces have failed to secure in ten years of conflict.

Gossi’s departure, which follows similar withdrawals from bases in Timbuktu and Kidal, is part of a phased withdrawal announced by France in February, sparked by worsening violence and a breakdown in relations between the two country. Read more

It marks the end of a mission that began in 2013 with early successes against Islamist militants who had taken control of parts of the north, but has become a quagmire, sucking up thousands of troops and billions of dollars.

More than 50 French soldiers died in Mali. As the conflict dragged on, anti-French sentiment grew and relations with Mali’s military junta, which took power in 2020, have gone beyond repair.

Today, a shift in the international fight against jihadists in the region is underway. As France leaves Mali, Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have moved in, rights groups and sources say, sparking concern among Western powers about a potential spike in violence. Read more

Mali and Russia have previously said there are no mercenaries in Mali, only Russian trainers helping local troops.

The Gossi base, which housed between 300 and 400 soldiers, is little more than a fortified enclosure surrounded by scrubland. The soldiers slept on beds under the stars. It was buzzing last week as they packed up generators and other kits and loaded them onto trucks.

The journey north to the city of Gao is 160 kilometers (100 miles), but it took the slow convoy a day and a half to get there. The soldiers know the road well: miles of thorny brush, rocky outcrops and the occasional camel. Breakdowns are frequent.

Before leaving on April 19, the French soldiers ceded the base to the Malian army. As saluting soldiers watched, the French flag was lowered and removed and replaced with that of Mali.

The base has been making headlines ever since. A day after he left, the French military released drone footage showing what it said were men burying bodies near the base. The army said it was an attempt by Russian mercenaries to discredit French soldiers. Reuters was unable to independently verify the images.

The Malian government confirmed that bodies had been found near the base and opened an investigation. The Wagner Group and Russian officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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Writing by Edward McAllister Editing by Mark Potter

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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