France says the first batch of its troops in Niger will begin withdrawing from the country after falling out with the military junta in power since the late July coup.
The withdrawal exercise is expected to last for three months.
“We will begin our disengagement operation this week, in good order, safely and in coordination with the Nigeriens,” the military headquarters said.
The announcement comes a week after France’s ambassador to Niamey returned home under pressure from the regime.
President Emmanuel Macron had announced on September 24 the withdrawal of 1,400 French troops “by the end of the year” Paris’ soldiers were in Niger as part of a wider fight against jihadists across the Sahel region.
French broadcaster, RFI reports that some 400 are deployed alongside local troops in the northwestern town of Ouallam, near Niger’s borders with Burkina Faso and Mali.
The “three borders” zone is known as a haven for the Islamic State group.
Soldiers withdrawing from the area would need cover to leave their exposed forward positions, the military headquarters said, possibly including air support from the larger force at an airbase outside the capital Niamey.
The troops have been living with uncertainty since the junta began demanding their departure, with irregular supplies of food and repeated anti-French demonstrations outside the Niamey base.
France had reinforced its presence in Niger after another coup-born military regime in Mali demanded its forces’ departure, adding armoured vehicles and helicopters to the drones and fighter jets already deployed.
Its troops will now have to withdraw either through Benin to the south – at odds with the junta in Niamey – or Chad to the east, site of France’s headquarters for the Sahel theatre.
For now, Niamey forbids French flights over its territory.