Mali and France sign new defence agreement

BAMAKO, Mali, July 16 Wed Jul 16, 2014 6:59pm EDT

BAMAKO, Mali, July 16 (Reuters) - France and Mali signed a new defence pact on Wednesday, an agreement that will let Paris maintain its prominent role in a former colony whose desert north was occupied by al Qaeda-linked rebels until they were defeated by French troops last year.

France has sought to wind down direct involvement in former colonies in Africa, where troops frequently intervened during the decades after independence. But weak local armies, the Islamist threat and a series of political crises and rebellions have led to major French interventions in recent years.

The new pact, a defence cooperation treaty that replaces a 1985 agreement, outlines the framework for French intelligence sharing, training and equipping of Malian troops.

French troops still tracking down Islamists in Mali are operating under a separate operational agreement signed last year, but the new deal ensures long-term military ties between the two nations.

Last year, France dispatched war planes and thousands of troops to beat back an advance by Islamist fighters who took advantage of a coup in the capital and a rebellion by separatist Tuareg rebels to seize Mali's desert north the year before.

Most of the Islamists fled the superior French firepower and the French deployment in Mali has since been reduced to about 1,700.

However, underscoring how the threat is now scattered across the vast Sahara-Sahel band, France is in the process of reorganising its presence in the region with troops in Mali being folded into a 3,000-strong anti-Islamist force also operating in Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

The defence agreement comes on the eve of a visit to the region by French President Francois Hollande, who will travel to Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad. (Reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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