The first French soldiers left Niger on Tuesday in an overland convoy under local escort, possibly to Chad, just as the United States announced the withdrawal of its aid to the country, which has been ruled by a military regime since late July.
The withdrawal of the French troops was quickly demanded by Niger’s generals after they came to power, and French President Emmanuel Macron announced their departure at the end of September.
Until now, some 1,400 French soldiers and airmen have been deployed in the country to fight jihadists alongside the Nigeriens, including around 1,000 in Niamey and 400 at two forward bases in the west, at Ouallam and Tabarey-Barey, in the heart of the so-called “three borders” zone with Mali and Burkina Faso.
A convoy of soldiers from Tabarey-Barey arrived in Niamey at midday on Tuesday, along with heavy goods vehicles carrying equipment and armoured vehicles, according to an AFP journalist.
The final destination of the French convoys has not been officially communicated, but according to sources close to the matter, they should then head for the Chadian capital N’Djamena, 1,600km away, where the command of the French Forces in the Sahel is located.
“The first departures are taking place, in accordance with the planning and coordination underway”, AFP learned earlier from the French armed forces.
A plane with French equipment and a first group of priority military personnel (medical evacuations, in particular) also took off from Niamey on Monday, another military source said.
The Niger regime had announced on Friday that the withdrawal of the French soldiers would take place “in complete safety”.
On Tuesday, the United States, which has some 1,100 troops in the country and a major drone base in Agadez (central Niger), formally described the military takeover of power on July 26 as a “coup d’état”, and consequently announced the withdrawal of some $500 million in economic aid.
“We are taking this step because over the past two months, we have exhausted all available avenues to preserve constitutional order in Niger,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.
“Any resumption of U.S. aid will require steps” by the regime “to restore democratic governance in a timely and credible manner”, added Mr. Miller.
For the time being, however, the US will keep its troops in Niger.
Another US official indicated that these soldiers were no longer actively assisting and training Nigerien forces, but would continue to monitor the jihadist threat.
Following France’s departure from Mali and then Burkina Faso over the past 18 months, Niger had become a key partner for French anti-jihadist operations in a region where armed groups affiliated to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda are rampant.
This latest withdrawal presents the French with a dual logistical and security challenge.
Travel options are limited, if not dangerous, with the risk of anti-French demonstrations, but also the presence of jihadists linked to Boko Haram and the West African branch of the EI (Iswap) in the Diffa area (eastern Niger).
Niger’s land borders with Benin and Nigeria have been closed since the coup. And the Nigeriens have forbidden French civilian and military aircraft from flying over their territory, unless an exemption has been granted.
On the other hand, borders have been reopened with Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.
After concluding a combat partnership with Niger against jihadist groups, France had discreetly beefed up the Niamey compound, with armoured vehicles and helicopters, to reinforce the five-armed Reaper drones and at least three Mirage fighter jets already on site.
Computer equipment, modular shelters for aircraft, cockpits for drones and engineering bulldozers are also on site: all equipment that the French army has no intention of leaving behind.