France accepts Burkina junta demand to pull out troops

France said Wednesday it will withdraw its contingent of hundreds of troops stationed in Burkina Faso within a month, after the junta ruling the Sahel country demanded the pullout.

The withdrawal will mark the latest scaling down of France's military presence in Africa after the junta in neighbouring Mali also insisted French troops leave and President Emmanuel Macron drew the curtain on the over decade-long anti-jihadist Barkhane mission.

Jihadist activity continues in the region while concern grows over the increasing influence of Russia, in particular through the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner Group run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

The French foreign ministry said it received a request from Burkina Faso to withdraw its troops within a month and will do so.

"On Tuesday... we formally received notice from the Burkinabe government of the termination of the 2018 agreement on the status of French armed forces present in the country," a ministry spokeswoman said.

"According to the terms of the accord, the termination takes effect a month after reception of written notification. We will respect the terms of the agreement by honouring this request."

- Gone by end February -

Around 400 French special forces are currently based in Burkina Faso in a deployment dubbed "Sabre", part of a broader military presence to fight jihadists across the Sahel region.

But the country has followed a similar course to neighbouring Mali, falling out with Paris after a military coup brought a junta to power and the French presence became increasingly unpopular among the public.

A source familiar with French military plans told AFP that while the troops would be gone by the end of February, their equipment would be picked up by late April.

Multiple concurring sources, who asked not to be named, told AFP that the preferred option would be to redeploy the troops in neighbouring Niger, with whom Paris currently has much warmer relations.

Paris had asked for clarification from transitional president Captain Ibrahim Traore who leads the junta on Monday after the government had said it was asking French forces to leave.

"This does not mean the end of diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and France," government spokesman Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo told broadcaster RTV following the announcement.

But Traore, after coming to power in a coup in September, has made a clear push to diversify partners in the fight against jihadists linked to both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group.

- Russia links? -

The Burkinabe government has assured Paris it will not follow Mali by turning to Russia's Wagner, led by the hugely controversial Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, to back up its army.

But a liaison team from the mercenary group has already visited to inspect the country's mineral reserves, according to multiple French sources.

The Burkinabe prime minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tembela paid a discreet visit to Moscow in December and declared two weeks ago that a partnership with Russia was "a choice of reason".

France and its Western partners have accused the junta in Mali of turning to Wagner for security support after taking power and the controversy over the links helped prompt the French pullout.

The government hasalso requested that Paris replace its ambassador after incumbent Luc Hallade commented publicly on the worsening security situation in the country.

The landlocked state, a former French colony, is one of the poorest and most volatile in Africa.

Thousands of troops, police and civilians have been killed and around two million people have fled their homes since jihadists launched an insurgency from neighbouring Mali in 2015.

More than a third of the country lies beyond the control of the government, and frustration within the army at the mounting toll triggered two coups last year.

Macron in November announced that France was ending its Barkhane anti-jihadist mission in Africa after over a decade, saying a new strategy would be worked out with African partners.

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