GOSSI, Mali (Reuters) – The French military left a remote base in northern Mali before dawn last week for the last time, one hundred vehicles forming a miles-long convoy across the barren desert terrain.
Helicopters whirred above, air support for hundreds of troops in trucks and armoured cars leaving the camp near the town of Gossi. A team of sappers led the way, looking for explosives hidden on the sandy floor.
“We are in the middle of the desert, on a road with big potholes and with a real direct risk from enemies who can lay mines or attack us with a car bomb,” said Lieutenant Imran, part of a tactical team charged with protecting the convoy.
This is what France’s withdrawal from northern Mali looks like: painstaking and slow, through hostile territory that its forces have failed to secure in ten years of conflict.
The departure from Gossi, which follows similar withdrawals from bases in Timbuktu and Kidal, is part of a staggered pullout announced by France in February, prompted by worsening violence and a breakdown in relations between the two countries.
It marks the end to a mission that began in 2013 with quick successes against Islamist militants who had taken over parts of the north, but which became a quagmire, sucking in thousands of troops and billions of dollars.
Over 50 French soldiers have died in Mali. As the conflict dragged on, anti-French sentiment grew and relations with Mali’s military junta, which took power in 2020, frayed beyond repair.
Now a shift in the international fight against jihadists in the region is underway. As France moves out of Mali, Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group have moved in, rights groups and sources say, raising concern among Western powers of a potential spike in violence.
Mali and Russia have previously said that there are no mercenaries in Mali, only Russian trainers helping local troops.
The Gossi base, which housed between 300 and 400 troops, is little more than a walled compound surrounded by scrubland. Soldiers slept on cots under the stars. It was abuzz last week as they packed up generators and other kit and loaded them onto trucks.
The journey north to the city of Gao is 160 kilometres (100 miles), but it took the slow-moving convoy a day and half to get there. The soldiers know the route well: miles of thorny scrub, rocky outcrops and the occasional camel. Breakdowns are common.
Before leaving on April 19, the French soldiers handed the base over to the Malian army. As saluting soldiers looked on, the French flag was lowered and removed and replaced with the Malian one.
The base has since been in the headlines. A day after leaving, the French military released drone footage of what it said was men burying bodies close to the base. The army said it was an attempt by Russian mercenaries to discredit French soldiers. Reuters was not able to independently verify the footage.
Mali’s government has confirmed that bodies were found near the base and has opened an investigation. Wagner Group and Russian officials did not respond to requests for comment.
(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by Mark Potter)