French troops have started leaving Niger more than two months after mutinous soldiers toppled the African country’s democratically elected president, the military has said.
The French did not specify how many troops were departing or where they were headed.
Niger’s state television broadcast images late on Tuesday of a convoy leaving a base in Ouallam in the country’s north, saying it was bound
for neighbouring Chad, to the east. French military transport aircraft were also shown departing from an airbase in the capital, Niamey.
The departure comes weeks after French president Emmanuel Macron announced that France would end its military presence in Niger and pull its ambassador out of the country as a result of the coup that removed President Mohamed Bazoum in late July.
Since seizing power, Niger’s military leaders have leveraged anti-French sentiment among the population against its former colonial ruler and said the withdrawal signalled a new step towards its sovereignty.
The United States has formally declared that the ousting of Mr Bazoum was a coup, suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in aid as well as military assistance and training.
Niger was seen by many in the West as the last country in Africa’s Sahel region — the vast expanse south of the Sahara Desert — that could be partnered with to beat back a growing jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
French troops have already been ousted by military regimes in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, which are seeing a surge in attacks.
“French forces might not have defeated these groups, but at least disrupted and limited their activities,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Centre for the New South, a Moroccan-based think tank.
With the French out of the picture, these would likely “expand to areas where French forces were providing support to Nigerien forces, especially on the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso,” Mr Lyammouri said.
Violence had already spiked since the coup. In the month after the junta seized power, violence primarily linked to the extremists soared by more than 40%, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Jihadi attacks targeting civilians quadrupled in August, compared with the month before, and attacks against security forces spiked in the Tillaberi region, killing at least 40 soldiers, the project reported.