France reassures Mali over troop withdrawal

France sent 4,000 troops to MaliThe French foreign minister was in Mali on Friday to reassure the war-torn nation that France is not planning an “overnight” withdrawal of the troops it sent there to fight Al-Qaeda-linked rebels.

Laurent Fabius met military officials and his Malian counterpart Tieman Coulibaly and was later due to see President Dioncounda Traore to discuss the pullout scheduled for the end of April and to push Mali to hold elections as planned in July.

“The international community has its eyes fixed on you. Restoring security is essential but restoring democratic dialogue is also essential. It rests on your shoulders,” he said after meeting Coulibaly.

France sent 4,000 troops to Mali in January to block an advance on the capital Bamako from the north by Islamist fighters.

Paris is preparing to hand over to a UN-mandated African force of 6,300 in the coming weeks, placing a spotlight on Mali’s poorly-paid, ill-equipped and badly-organised armed forces.

The Malian military fell apart last year when well-armed Islamist extremists seized the country’s vast northern desert, terrorising locals with amputations and executions performed under a brutal interpretation of sharia Islamic law.

The French-led intervention quickly drove out the insurgents but significant pockets of resistance remain in the Ifoghas mountains as well as in the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu.

Paris has announced the beginning of its troop withdrawal from Mali late April, with its deployment halving by late July and a UN peacekeeping force of more than 11,000 troops expected to deploy around the same time.

“I’ll tell my partners that we will not go overnight,” Fabius told reporters, noting that France intended to keep a residual force of around 1,000 men in its west African former colony until the end of the year.

Fabius said the other objective of his visit was to encourage Mali’s politicians to begin the process of reconciliation, particularly between the north and the south, and organise presidential elections for July.

He said the “policy decisions had already been taken” for a July poll.

“Technically and politically it is feasible” to have “a legally elected president in July,” he added.

Analysts have voiced doubts over the possibility of a vote within such a tight timeframe because of the continued instability in the north and the problem of getting 400,000 people displaced by the conflict to the ballot box.

But Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, the minister for territorial administration, said on Thursday he had “no doubt” over the timetable.

He said Mali had decided to allow refugees to go to “the polling booth of their choice” and was in contact with neighbouring countries including Mauritania, Algeria and Nigeria to ensure ballot boxes were available there.

“This election will not be absolutely perfect,” a French diplomatic source conceded, adding that Paris and the international community were nevertheless relying on the ripple effect elections could have to advance reconciliation.

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