Burkina Faso announced on Sunday that operations by the French army in the jihadist-hit West African state were officially over, after bilateral relations soured in recent months.
Senior officers from Burkinabe and French forces in the country held a flag-lowering ceremony to mark the occasion at a camp on the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou on Saturday, Burkina’s army said in a statement.
Last month France confirmed it would withdraw its contingent of hundreds of troops stationed in Burkina Faso, after the junta ruling the Sahel country demanded the force pull out within four weeks.
The request came days after Burkina’s Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tembela declared Russia to be a “reasonable” choice of new partner in the anti-jihadist fight.
“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.
Some of the troops left days after that announcement.
Their departure marks another significant step in the scaling-down of France’s military presence in the region.
🇧🇫🇫🇷 L'armée du Burkina Faso a annoncé dimanche la fin officielle des opérations militaires de la France sur le sol burkinabè pic.twitter.com/Ulo29OT2bm
— VOA Afrique (@VOAAfrique) February 20, 2023
The junta in neighboring Mali also insisted French troops leave and in 2022 French President Emmanuel Macron ended the anti-jihadist Barkhane mission there after a decade.
The jihadist attacks continue in the region.
As French forces quit the region, there is concern among Western countries over the increasing influence of Russia, in particular the presence of mercenaries from the Wagner group run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin.
France’s military disengagement, including equipment and materials, will be finalized by a logistics team deployed for this purpose, the Burkina Faso army statement said.
According to a Burkinabe security source, “most of the (French) soldiers have already left.”
The end-of-operations ceremony on Saturday was presided over by the Burkina Faso army chief of staff, Colonel Adam Nere, and French Lieutenant-Colonel Louis Lecacheur, who has led the 400 special forces troops deployed in Burkina under a task force called Sabre.
Asked when the last soldiers would actually leave, a French army spokesman declined to comment.
On Sunday, the ECOWAS regional bloc maintained its sanctions against Burkina Faso, as well as Mali and Guinea, three military-ruled countries in the volatile Sahel region.
The three troubled nations were suspended from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) after undergoing military coups since 2020.
In an address to the African Union summit on Saturday, AU Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat said the pan-African bloc needed to look at new strategies to counter the backsliding of democracy.
“Sanctions imposed on member states following unconstitutional changes of government… do not seem to produce the expected results,” he said.
One of the world’s poorest nations, Burkina Faso has been rocked by a jihadist insurgency that spilled over from neighboring Mali in 2015. The country was the scene of two military coups in 2022.
Thousands have been killed, more than two million people have fled their homes and around 40 percent of the country lies outside government control.
On Friday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced it was suspending most of its work in Burkina Faso after the killing last week of two of its employees by armed men