The French army announced Tuesday that it had begun evacuating troops from Niger after being told to do so by the leaders of the coup that deposed the president, a close ally of France.
The decision begins a long and contentious process that Paris hopes to complete by the end of the year, bringing an end to another French anti-jihadist mission in Africa.
“The first troops have left,” a spokesperson for the French chief of staff told AFP, confirming Niger’s military leadership’s declaration Monday that the 1,400-strong French contingent would begin leaving on Tuesday.
An AFP journalist witnessed a convoy of soldiers with trucks bringing equipment and armored vehicles from western Niger arrive in the capital Niamey about midday on Tuesday.
According to a French defense source, a first batch of soldiers deemed urgent for evacuation for health or humanitarian reasons flew out of Niger on Monday.
Niamey has mentioned troop convoys being escorted out of the nation by the Nigerien army, without specifying where they would go.
The regime said Friday the withdrawal would take place “safely”.
There has been no official word on where the French convoys are ultimately headed.
According to security sources, they would go to Chad across more than 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) of roads and trails to reach N’Djamena, where French forces in the Sahel command are stationed.
The retreat was expected to present logistical problems for the French, as there were few safe routes out of a region infested with terrorist factions.
Since the July 26 coup, Niger’s land borders with Benin and Nigeria have been blocked.
Niamey prohibits French aircraft from flying over its territory.
A total of 1,000 French troops were stationed in Niamey, with an additional 400 stationed at two forward posts in the north-west, near Mali and Burkina Faso, a hotspot of insurgent activity.
France had beefed up its presence in Niger, adding armored vehicles and helicopters to the drones and fighter jets already on the ground.
It is the third time in 18 months that French troops have been expelled by a former African colony, dealing a major damage to France’s influence on the continent and international standing.
The architects of the coup that deposed French-backed President Mohamed Bazoum also gave France’s ambassador to Niger his marching orders.
On September 27, he returned to Paris, sparking jubilation in Niamey.
Pivot away from Paris
Niamey’s military authorities hailed France’s declaration of diplomatic and troop disengagement in September as a “step toward Niger’s sovereignty.”
Mali and Burkina Faso, who have also experienced coups in the last two years, have also turned against France, accusing it of colonialism and failing to battle jihadists effectively.
Mali has shifted its focus to Moscow, bringing in mercenaries from the infamous Wagner organization.
Anti-French protesters in Niger have also been seen carrying Russian flags, in stark contrast to the joy that greeted French forces when they helped free northern Mali from Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in 2013.
In recent months, Niger has served as a regional hub for French forces assisting armies in the region fighting Islamist terrorists.
Initially, French President Emmanuel Macron attempted to maintain his troops and ambassador in the country, claiming that only the deposed Bazoum had the ability to seek their evacuation.
After months of anti-French protests, he caved in late September and allowed them to return home.
France, on the other hand, maintains that Bazoum’s deposed government is the sole legitimate authority.
The former president remains under house arrest in Niamey.
The United States still has about 1,100 military personnel in the country but after Macron’s announcement said last month it would “evaluate” its next steps.