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Mali asks France to pull out troops 'without delay'
Mali's army-led government asked France on Friday to withdraw its forces from the Sahel state "without delay", calling into question Paris' plans to pull out over several months.
A government spokesman added in a statement announced on public television that the results of France's nine-year military engagement in conflict-torn Mali were "not satisfactory".
On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was withdrawing troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the nation's ruling military junta.
France first intervened in Mali in 2013 to combat a jihadist insurgency that emerged one year prior. It currently has thousands of troops stationed across the Sahel, with the majority in Mali.
However, relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply after Mali's army seized power in a coup in 2020, and later defied calls to restore civilian rule swiftly.
The French pullout after nearly a decade is also set to see the smaller European Takuba group of special forces, created in 2020, leave Mali.
Macron said the withdrawal would take place over four to six months.
Spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga called the prolonged French withdrawal a "flagrant violation" of accords between the two countries.
"In view of these repeated breaches of defence agreements, the government invites the French authorities to withdraw, without delay," he said.
Macron responded with a statement saying he would not compromise the safety of French soldiers and the withdrawal will take place take place "in orderly fashion".
The French withdrawal has raised questions about the possibility of a security vacuum in impoverished Mali, a vast and ethnically diverse nation of 21 million people.
- Dire relations -
Mali's call for a swift French military withdrawal caps months of escalating tensions with its former colonial master.
Relations first began to fray after Malian army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita deposed elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.
The army then deposed the civilian leaders of a transitional government last year, in a second coup.
Mali's international partners -- including France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) -- insisted that the junta stick to a pledge to stage elections in February 2022 and restore civilian rule.
But the junta floated plans to stay in power for up to five years.
The proposal prompted the 15-nation ECOWAS bloc to impose a trade embargo and shut its borders with Mali in January.
France followed by announcing a pullout on Thursday. However, Paris had already begun to scale back its deployment before relations nosedived.
It closed three bases in northern Mali this year, where the bulk of its anti-jihadist Barkhane force had been stationed.
- Wagner group -
As well as concerns over civilian rule in Mali, Paris has protested the junta's alleged use of Russia's Wagner private security firm.
The US and others say that hundreds of fighters from the controversial paramilitary group are in the country. However, the junta flatly denies the claim. AFP has been unable to independently verify the information.
Mali remains the epicentre of the Sahel-wide jihadist conflict, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and displaced some two million people.
The conflict spread deeper into Mali, despite the presence of French troops, which has fed popular resentment of France's military intervention.
France and its allies have vowed to remain engaged in fighting terror in the Sahel despite leaving Mali.