French-led allied troops are to pull out of Mali amid disagreements with the transitional government of the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron's office announced in a statement that the government had obstructed the work of European and Canadian forces based in the country to combat terrorist groups operating there.
France currently has about 4,300 troops deployed across the Sahel region — over half of them in Mali — as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane, launched in 2013 following a request from Malian authorities.
It is assisted by Task Force Takuba which includes 800 soldiers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden.
A 15,000-strong UN peacekeeping force, MISNUMA, is also based in Mali.
The announcement, which comes at the start of a two-day summit between the European Union and the African Union, was widely expected following pressure from the Malian military junta that came to power following two coups d'état and which fanned anti-French sentiment in the West African nation.
The junta expelled the French ambassador to Mali two weeks ago, citing "hostile" statements by French officials against them. It came just days after it demanded Denmark "immediately" pull its 90 soldiers out of the country, arguing that they had arrived "without its consent".
Western countries had also criticised the use of a private Russian militia, Wagner, reputedly close to the Kremlin
The international partners and African countries said in their statement that they "regret" that the Malian transitional authorities have not yet respected their commitment to the West African organisation ECOWAS "to hold presidential and legislative elections by February 27, 2022".
"We urge the Malian authorities to complete the transition period and organise free, fair and credible elections," they said.
French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters during a press conference that the country will close its three remaining military bases in Mali "within four to six months."
He added that the withdrawal "will be carried out in an orderly manner, with the Malian armed forces and the United Nations Mission in Mali" and that "during this period, we will maintain our support missions for the Minusma".
It is expected that up to 3,000 French troops will remain stationed across the Sahel once the withdrawal from Mali is complete.
Macron defended France's involvement in Mali, telling reporters that he "categorically rejects the notion" of failure, arguing that without French intervention back in 2013 "you would have seen the collapse of the Malian state, for sure."
"The situation regarding terrorist groups today is very different from that of eight years ago," he also stressed, citing the killings of several terrorist leaders.
The statement from international partners highlighted that they have agreed to "continue their joint action against terrorism" in the Sahel region, including in Niger and the Gulf of Guinea, following a "request of their African partners".
The terms of their shared action are to be laid out by June 2022.
They also said that "in order to contain the geographical expansion of the actions of armed terrorist groups towards the south and west of the region, the international partners indicate their willingness to actively consider extending their support to neighbouring countries in the Gulf of Guinea and West Africa, based on their demands."
Senegalese President Macky Sall, also present at the press conference alongside Macron, told reporters they "understand this decision" to pull out of Mali and welcomed the announcement that some forces from the international partners will be redeployed across the region.
"The fight against terrorism in the Sahel cannot be the sole responsibility of African countries," he said. "We are pleased that the commitment has been renewed to remain in the region and to reorganise the mechanism."
However, Amadou Koita, the former cabinet minister in the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita worries that the withdrawl of France's military will create a security vacuum and leave Mali vulnerable to terrorism, “today it's the terrorist groups who are happy with this announcement”.
“We wanted our country to continue to benefit from the military support of France and Europe, and to make Mali a barrier against terrorism,” he said. “We hope that this announcement does not mean an abandonment of Mali by its partners and we hope that Mali will continue to benefit from cooperation with the entire international community.”