By Tangi Salaün and Bate Felix
PARIS (Reuters) -France will soon begin reshaping its military presence in the Sahel region of West Africa, where it has been on the front line of the fight against Islamist militants, and will ultimately halve it, President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday.
The former colonial power, France has hailed some successes against Sahel militants in recent months. The situation is extremely fragile, however, and with no apparent end in sight to its operations and political turmoil especially in Mali, Paris has grown frustrated.
France will first move its troops further south to stem the threats by militants on coastal states, and then later start reducing their presence to around half the current level of some 5,100 soldiers, Macron said.
“We will remain committed. But to remain committed is also to adapt,” Macron told a news conference after a virtual summit with leaders of Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania that make up the G5 Sahel region.
He added that the French army would focus on targeting the senior leadership of the militant groups linked to the Islamic State and al Qaeda, while helping national armies of the Sahel states to ramp up their fire power.
Macron announced a month ago that France was ending its Barkhane mission eight years after it first intervened in the Sahel and would operate within a broader international alliance.
Macron on Friday said this was made possible by in part by the changing nature of the threat as well as the capabilities of local armies and support from other European nations.
“This reconfiguration will begin in the coming weeks. In line with the shift in threat to the south, it will mean a reduction in our military footprint primarily in the north (of the Sahel),” Macron said.
Macron said the reconfiguration will start during the second half of 2021, and will be completed by the start of 2022, particularly closing French bases in the Mali regions of Kidal, Tessalit and Timbuktu.
There will not be an immediate reduction of troop numbers in the months ahead, but France will be left with 2,500-3,000 troops in the Sahel once the drawdown was completed, Macron said, but gave no timeframe.
Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum told the news conference he supported the French troop reduction.
Responding to criticism that the security situation in the region has worsened despite the French military presence, Bazoum said the results have fallen short mostly because national armies have failed.
“I’m head of state and I can tell. We are not seeing results because at the moment, it is mostly our armies that have not been up to the task,” Bazoum said during the joint press conference with Macron.
“Five thousand French troops in Mali will not fix the problems in Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast or elsewhere. That is clear, and we must understand that,” he said.
(Reporting by Tangi Salaun and Bate Felix; Editing by Richard Lough, Catherine Evans, William Maclean)