ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria plans to withdraw much of its 1,200-strong contingent from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, saying the troops are needed to beef up security at home, sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
Nigeria is battling Islamist group Boko Haram but the move comes just 10 days before Mali’s presidential election, which is meant to restore democracy after a coup and the occupation of the desert north by al Qaeda-linked rebels last year.
The 12,600-man U.N. mission in Mali is rolling out to replace most of the 4,500 French forces who intervened dramatically in January to halt an Islamist advance south.
“It seems Nigeria is pulling out its infantry but leaving some other elements ... I think that it is because the troops are needed at home,” a Nigeria-based diplomat said.
A Nigerian military source and two other diplomats in West Africa confirmed the planned pullout, saying it was mainly due to the need to tackle the country’s own insurgency.
It was not immediately clear how many Nigerian troops would be withdrawn. One of the diplomats said engineers and signals operators would be amongst those left behind with the United Nations.
A two-month offensive against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria since President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency in mid-May has stretched its security forces, and new rotations are needed to go in.
Underscoring the fragile security in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram - whose nickname roughly translates as ‘Western education is sinful’ - has targeted at least four schools there over the past month, killings dozens of pupils.
Mali’s own army remains weak, the result of years of corruption and neglect that led to a several defeats by militants in the north then a coup by disgruntled officers in Bamako. Attacks on peacekeepers this month illustrated how fragile security continues to be in Mali’s desert north.
European Union troops are training the Malian army but are not expected to complete the program until next March at the earliest.
Former minister Tiebile Drame, who drafted last month’s peace deal between Mali’s government and northern separatist rebels, pulled out of July 28 presidential elections on Wednesday, arguing that Western pressure was pushing to Mali into holding them before it is ready.
Reporting by Tim Cocks; Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar; Editing by Daniel Flynn