France says its troops have left Mali, remains committed to helping Sahel

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PARIS (Reuters) -France said on Monday that all of its troops battling Islamist militants in Mali since 2013 have now left the country after a decision in February to withdraw over the deterioration of relations between Paris and Bamako.

"Today at 13:00 (Paris time), the last military unit of the Barkhane force present on Malian territory crossed the border between Mali and Niger," a defence ministry statement said.

After almost a decade where they were based in Mali to fight Islamist insurgents around West Africa, France and military allies have said they would do so from Niger instead.

"France remains engaged in the (wider) Sahel (region), in the Gulf of Guinea and the Lake Chad region with all partners committed to stability and to the fight against terrorism," the French presidency said in a statement.

Coups in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso have weakened France's alliances in its former colonies, emboldened jihadists who control large swathes of desert and scrubland, and opened the door to greater Russian influence.

Niger will become the hub for French troops, with some 1,000 soldiers based in the capital Niamey along with fighter jets, drones and helicopters, French officials told reporters last month. Another 300-400 would be dispatched for special operations with Niger troops in the border regions with Burkina and Mali.

A further 700-1,000 are to be based in Chad and an undisclosed number of special forces operating elsewhere in the region. French troops will no longer carry out missions or pursue militants into Mali once the exit was complete, the officials said.

(Reporting by Jean-Michel Belot and Michel Rose; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Toby Chopra, Edmund Blair and Mark Heinrich)