The first French soldiers left Niger on Tuesday in an overland convoy under local escort, possibly to Chad, just as the United States announced the withdrawal of its aid to the country, which has been ruled by a military regime since late July.
Pick-up trucks and armored personnel carriers laden with French soldiers drove through the dusty outskirts of Niamey on Tuesday, marking a departure demanded by Niger’s military rulers, who seized power in July.
Until now, some 1,400 French soldiers and airmen have been deployed in the country to fight jihadists alongside the Nigeriens, including around 1,000 in Niamey and 400 at two forward bases in the west, at Ouallam and Tabarey-Barey, in the heart of the so-called “three borders” zone with Mali and Burkina Faso.
In a statement read on state television, Niger’s military called on citizens to cooperate with the troop movements, which it said would involve some of the 1,500 French soldiers leaving Niger by road to Chad, a journey of hundreds of kilometers through sometimes insecure territory.
In addition to the departure by land, “three special flights” have been registered at the airport in Niamey, two for the departure of “97 special forces elements” and one “dedicated to logistics”.
On Tuesday, the United States, which has some 1,100 troops in the country and a major drone base in Agadez (central Niger), formally described the military takeover of power on July 26 as a “coup d’état”, and consequently announced the withdrawal of some $500 million in economic aid.
Niger’s land borders with Benin and Nigeria have been closed since the coup. The Nigeriens have forbidden French civilian and military aircraft from flying over their territory unless an exemption has been granted.
On the other hand, borders have been reopened with Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad.
After concluding a combat partnership with Niger against jihadist groups, France had discreetly beefed up the Niamey compound with armored vehicles and helicopters to reinforce the five-armed Reaper drones and at least three Mirage fighter jets already on site.
Computer equipment, modular shelters for aircraft, cockpits for drones and engineering bulldozers are also on site—all equipment that the French army has no intention of leaving behind.