Burkina Faso marks official end of French military operations on its soil
By Thiam Ndiaga
OUAGADOUGOU (Reuters) -France and Burkina Faso have officially marked the end of French military operations in the West African nation, the Burkinabe armed forces said on Sunday, after a flag-lowering ceremony at the French special forces' camp a day earlier.
In January, Burkina Faso gave France one month to withdraw its troops as it ended a military accord that allowed French troops to fight insurgents on its territory, citing a wish for the country to defend itself.
Their departure marks a new chapter in Burkina's battle with Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, which have taken over large swathes of land and displaced millions of people in the wider Sahel region, just south of the Sahara.
In a statement, the General Staff of the Burkinabe Armed Forces said it had participated with the leadership of France's Sabre special forces in "a solemn flag-lowering ceremony marking the official end of the Task Force's operations on Burkinabe soil".
The French armed forces ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The departure of the some 400 French special forces from Burkina Faso follows a sharp deterioration in relations that included Ouagadougou asking France to recall its ambassador.
Last year, protests by opponents of the French military presence increased sharply, partly due to perceptions that France had not done enough to curb the insurgency.
Over the past week, a small group of anti-French protesters has met each evening in Ouagadougou to watch out for signs of French withdrawal.
"We don't want the smallest second added to the scheduled date (of departure). Let them leave and leave our Faso to us," said Amadé Maiga, who was among those decked out in Burkinabe flags and waving a French tricolor with a red cross through it.
Some of the group also held Russian flags - a sign of the complicated political undercurrents shaping the region.
Both Burkina Faso and neighbouring Mali are ruled by military juntas which seized power by force in the last two years, promising to improve security and look beyond their traditional allies for support.
France withdrew its forces from Mali last year after the junta there started working with Russian military contractors. Ghana has accused Burkina Faso of hiring mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group, prompting Burkina's interim president to deny such forces were in the country.
French President Emmanuel Macron has described Russia's influence in troubled African countries as "predatory" as France has seen its own clout in former colonies diminish.
"Walking with Russia is not a sin ... Russia is the solution," said 58-year-old protester Amadé Compaoré.
(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta in Paris; Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Angus MacSwan and David Homes)