Hundreds of people in Mali on Friday protested against the presence of foreign troops in their country, just days ahead of a summit meant to “clarify” France’s military role in the region.
Malian and foreign soldiers have been struggling to contain a jihadist revolt that erupted in the West African country in 2012 and has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.
Fighting has also spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The failure to quell the violence has fed scepticism about the role of former colonial power France, which has some 4,500 troops deployed across the Sahel under Operation Barkhane.
Hundreds of people gathered in a square in the centre of the capital Bamako, where they burned the French tricolour, an AFP journalist reported.
Protesters carried banners reading slogans such as “Down with France, Barkhane must leave” or “France is a brake on our development”.
French President Emmanuel Macron has responded to the tensions by inviting the leaders of Sahel states Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad to a summit in France on January 13.
He said last month that the idea is to “define more clearly our military, political and development objectives”.
Despite antipathy in some quarters towards foreign troops, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita urged people not to “mistake the enemy” in a speech to ministers this week.
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“The foreign forces present in our country are our allies in this tragic war which was imposed on us,” Keita’s spokesperson reported the president as saying.
But MPs from Keita’s own party were present at the protest in Bamako on Friday, an AFP journalist said.
There are hopes that the summit, which takes place in the southern French city of Pau, will soothe nerves.
Keita said last month that the meeting would be “decisive” because it would allow “all the questions, all the grievances, all the solutions” to be put on the table.
Macron’s invitation initially angered some Sahel leaders, who perceived it as a presumptious summons.