BY ANGELA CHARLTON
PARIS, FRANCE (AP) — A European military task force that helped Mali’s government fight Islamic extremists has formally withdrawn from the West African country amid tensions with its ruling military junta.
The French military, which spearheaded the Takuba task force, announced Friday that it officially ended its work Thursday. The move was tied to France’s decision earlier this year to withdraw troops from Mali after nine years helping Malian forces fight violent extremists who had threatened to seize power.
The European departure comes after at least 132 people were killed in several villages in central Mali in recent weeks in attacks blamed on jihadi rebels linked to al-Qaida, and after a contractor for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Mali was killed Thursday.
It also comes as Mali’s junta has grown closer to Russia, as Moscow has looked to build alliances and gain sway in Africa.
The European Takuba force was composed of several hundred special forces troops from 10 countries: Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, and Sweden. It aimed at training and protecting Malian combat forces.
Despite the withdrawal, the French military called the force a “strategic and tactical success” and an example of “what Europeans are able to achieve together in complex security environments,” saying that lessons learned from Takuba could be used in future joint operations.
In announcing its pullout, France accused Mali’s authorities of neglecting the fight against Islamic extremists. France is maintaining a military presence in neighboring West African nations facing similar threats.
Insurgents remain active in Mali, and extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State group have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali, stoking animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the region.
The recent attacks on villages in central Mali were the deadliest since mutinous soldiers toppled the president in 2020.
Then on Thursday, a Malian contractor for the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali was killed by armed militants on a motorcycle in the city of Menaka. The U.N. force MINUSMA said he was in route to see his hospitalized wife when he was killed, denouncing the killing as a “cowardly and barbaric act.”
The U.N. Security Council voted Wednesday to maintain the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, while condemning its military rulers for using mercenaries who are accused of committing human rights and humanitarian violations.
The junta has hired mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, which has been accused by the European Union and human rights groups of violating human rights and international humanitarian law. While the Kremlin denies links to the company, Western analysts call it a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia and China abstained from the French-drafted U.N. resolution, which extends the mandate of the mission until June 30, 2023, with its current ceiling of 13,289 military personnel and 1,920 international police.
Officials say more than 270 peacekeepers have died in Mali, making it the U.N.’s deadliest peacekeeping mission.