France is to end its military cooperation with Niger and pull its 1,500 troops out of the African country by the end of the year after a military coup there in July, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday.
The move deals a hammer blow to France's counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel and France's influence in the region, but Macron said France would "not be held hostage by the putschists."
"France has decided to recall its ambassador and end its military cooperation with Niger," Macron said in an interview with France's TF1 and France 2 television stations.
Niger's junta welcomed the announcement and said that it signals a "new step towards the sovereignty" of the country.
"Imperialist and neo-colonialist forces are no longer welcome on our national territory. The new era of cooperation, based on mutual respect and sovereignty is already underway," it said in a statement.
Full withdrawal 'by end of year'
Macron said that French military cooperation was "over" and French troops would withdraw in "the months and weeks to come" with a full pullout "by the end of the year."
"In the weeks and months to come, we will consult with the putschists, because we want this to be done peacefully," he added.
France keeps about 1,500 soldiers in Niger as part of an anti-jihadist deployment in the Sahel region.
Niger's military leaders told French ambassador Sylvain Itte he had to leave the country after they overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.
But a 48-hour ultimatum for him to leave, issued in August, passed with him still in place as the French government refused to comply, or to recognize the military regime as legitimate.
Bazoum informed of Paris' decision
Macron said he still regarded democratically elected Bazoum — currently held prisoner by the coup leaders — as the country's legitimate leader and had informed him of his decision.
"He was targeted by this coup d'etat because he was carrying out courageous reforms and because there was a largely ethnic settling of scores and a lot of political cowardice," he argued.
The impoverished Sahel region, south of the Sahara has suffered what Macron has previously called an "epidemic" of coups in recent years, with military regimes replacing elected governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea as well as Niger.
mm/kb (AFP, AP, Reuters)