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Canada will be joining the withdrawal of a French-led military contingent from Mali after supporting the operation against Islamist militants for nearly a decade, the military allies have announced.

Canada does not have its own troops in the counter-insurgency campaign, known today as Operation Barkhane and Task Force Takuba, but has been supporting it with military transport aircraft since 2013.

France and its allies in the West African country, including Canada, have been increasingly critical of Mali’s military junta after it postponed elections and recruited an estimated 1,000 private military contractors from Russia’s Wagner Group for its internal security.

“Due to multiple obstructions by the Malian transitional authorities, Canada and the European states operating alongside Operation Barkhane and within the Task Force Takuba deem that the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali,” a joint announcement said on Thursday in a statement under French presidential letterhead.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the 2,400 French troops in Mali will be removed or relocated to neighbouring Niger over the next four to six months, and the three French bases in Mali will be closed.

“We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share,” Mr. Macron told a news conference in Paris on Thursday.

Analysts predict that the withdrawal – faster than previously expected – could create a security vacuum in Mali that will benefit the Islamists and the Russian mercenary forces.

Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand travelled to Paris on Wednesday for a dinner with Mr. Macron and other international partners at the Élysée Palace to discuss the Mali issue. She said they were troubled by the Malian military junta’s “unreasonable proposal” to delay elections by four years.

“We are also very concerned by the deployment of the private military company Wagner Group,” she told reporters on Thursday. “Their presence represents a significant risk to stability in West Africa and respect for human rights.”

France has about 4,600 troops in the Sahel region, fighting Islamist militias that have gained control of large chunks of territory across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. But the French have become increasingly unpopular in the region, often blamed for its economic and security problems.

The French military presence in the Sahel will eventually be reduced to about 2,500 to 3,000 troops, French officials said.

Mr. Macron denied that the withdrawal from Mali was a sign of failure. “I completely reject this term,” he told the news conference.

The announcement does not formally affect the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, in which Canada has 23 police and military officers. But some analysts say the UN peacekeepers could be weakened if they cannot call on French military aircraft or troops for rapid assistance.

The UN mission in Mali, with about 14,000 troops, has suffered more casualties than any other UN peacekeeping mission in the world.

Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for MINUSMA, said the French withdrawal will inevitably have an impact on the peacekeeping mission. German officials said the withdrawal could also jeopardize a European military training program in Mali.

“In the short term, it’s very likely that the Barkhane vacuum will contribute to more violence,” said Bruno Charbonneau, director of the Centre for Security and Crisis Governance at the Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Quebec.

“MINUSMA will adapt if it loses troops, but it might be harder if it loses French support,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Both operations share bases in Mali, so basic UN troop and base protection will likely suffer from the French retreat. In the last few weeks, there’s already been an increase in the number of attacks on MINUSMA and Malian troops.”

Canada has been one of Mali’s biggest financial supporters for decades, providing about $1.6-billion in development aid to the country over the past 20 years. It also deployed about 250 Canadian troops to the country from 2018 to 2019 to support Canadian helicopters in the UN mission.

Canada’s armed forces have been supporting the French-led military campaign in Mali for many years by deploying military aircraft to move French military equipment and troops between France and West Africa.

The federal government says it suspended its direct financial support and military aid to Mali’s government after a coup in August, 2020, but continued to support the French-led military operation and the UN mission.

The coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, consolidated his power in a second coup last year and became Mali’s president. His regime announced in January that it would postpone elections for four years. West African and European countries responded with sanctions against Mali.

In December, Canada and 15 European countries condemned the military junta’s decision to recruit mercenaries from the Wagner Group, which has close links to the Kremlin.

With a report by Steven Chase in Ottawa

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