By Nikolaj Skydsgaard and John Irish
COPENHAGEN/PARIS (Reuters) -Denmark will start pulling its troops out of Mali after the West African country’s transitional junta government this week insisted on an immediate withdrawal, a blow to France as its counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel begins to unravel.
The decision comes amid tension between Mali and its international partners including regional bodies and the European Union that have sanctioned Mali after the junta failed to organise elections following two military coups.
Tensions have escalated also over allegations that transitional authorities have deployed private military contractors from the Russia-backed Wagner Group to Mali, which some EU countries have said was incompatible with their mission.
“We can see that the Malian transitional government, or the coup generals, last night sent out a public statement where they again reiterated that Denmark is not welcome in Mali, and we of course will not put up with that,” Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod told reporters on Thursday. “So therefore we have decided to withdraw our soldiers home.”
Denmark had sent 105 military personnel to Mali on Jan. 18 to join a European special forces mission, known as Takuba, that was set up to help Mali tackle Islamist militants. It said its troops had deployed after a “clear invitation” by Mali.
But the Malian government said this week it was surprised by the Danish presence, because a decision had yet to be made on a request from Denmark in June to deploy troops.
Denmark’s withdrawal, which comes after Sweden affirmed earlier this month that it would leave Mali in March, is a headache for France, which had staked so much on “Europeanising” its Sahel intervention, where Paris has thousands of troops operating.
Relations between France and its former colony have soured and on Wednesday the junta lashed out at Paris telling it to stop interfering and to keep its “colonial reflexes” to itself.
France and 14 other European countries had urged the junta on Wednesday to allow Danish special forces to remain in Mali, rejecting the junta’s claims their presence was without legal basis. Maiga responded that the Danes needed to withdraw immediately.
“We invite them (the Danes) to be careful about some partners who sadly have problems getting rid of their colonial reflexes,” Maiga said.
The junta’s decision to ask Denmark to leave is likely to impact future deployments, with Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Romania and Lithuania set to send troops this year.
Norway, Portugal and Hungary are still waiting for approval to deploy their special forces, the junta said.
(Additional reporting by Stine Jacobsen and Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in Copenhagen, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Bate Felix in Dakar; Editing by Bernadette Baum)