African and Western leaders meet in Paris to flesh out plans over how to continue fighting insurgency in the volatile Sahel region once France and its European allies withdraw troops from Mali.
President Emmanuel Macron has welcomed African leaders for dinner in Paris ahead of an expected announcement that France is withdrawing its troops from Mali after nearly 10 years fighting a militant insurgency.
The working dinner hosted by Macron on Wednesday started at 1930 GMT, and brought together the leaders of France's key allies in the Sahel region –– Chad, Mauritania and Niger.
Officials from Mali and Burkina Faso, which also recently experienced a coup, were not invited.
Sources say Macron will announce on Thursday that French forces will leave Mali and redeploy elsewhere in the Sahel region, following a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta.
Macron is to travel to Brussels on Thursday for a two-day EU-Africa summit.
But the French presidency announced he would hold an 0800 GMT press conference at the Elysee on the "engagement of France in the Sahel", where he is likely to make the formal announcement.
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The Mali deployment has been fraught with problems for France. Of the 53 soldiers killed serving in its Barkhane mission in West Africa, 48 of them died in Mali.
France initially deployed troops against militants in Mali in 2013 but the insurgency was never fully quelled, and now new fears have emerged of a militant push to the Gulf of Guinea.
The deployment in Mali of a European force known as Takuba –– a project driven by Macron to spread the security burden in the troubled region –– will also end, the sources said.
The expected announcement of the withdrawal comes at a critical time for Macron, just days ahead of a long-awaited declaration from the president that he will stand for a new term in the April elections.
It also coincides with Macron seeking to take a lead role in international diplomacy as he presses Russia to de-escalate in the standoff over Ukraine.
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There are a total of 25,000 foreign troops currently deployed in the Sahel region.
They include around 4,300 French soldiers, which under a reduction announced last year are due to fall to around 2,500 in 2023 from a peak of 5,400.
Other forces deployed in Mali are the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA established in 2013 and the EUTM Mali, an EU military training mission that aims to improve the Malian military's capacity in fighting terrorists.
Paris' withdrawal could set the stage for other European powers like Britain or Germany to abandon their roles in the multinational missions.
"The departure of Barkhane and Takuba creates a void," Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara said on Wednesday.
In the Sahel and Gulf of Guinea, "national armies will have to deal with problems on our national territories, and that's our philosophy", he told broadcasters RFI and France 24.
France however sees Niger open to taking some European troops.
Relations between France and Mali have plunged to new lows after the junta led by strongman Assimi Goita refused to stick to a calendar to a return to civilian rule.
The West also accuses Mali of using the services of the hugely controversial Russian mercenary group Wagner to shore up its position –– a claim Mali rejects.
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