ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria is withdrawing some of its 1,200 troops fighting Islamic extremists in Mali so they can help deal with an insurgency back home, Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said Thursday.
The Nigerians are in a force of 12,600 African troops in Mali under a U.N. peacekeeping mandate that is to take over from French troops. France rushed 4,500 troops to Mali in January to prevent al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists who had seized the north of the country from marching south to the capital.
Chairing a summit of West African nations in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Ouattara told a news conference that the withdrawal was “because of the domestic situation in Nigeria.” The announcement comes 10 days before elections in Mali.
The number of troops being withdrawn was not yet clear.
“They are not withdrawing everyone,” he said. “A good part of the troops are going to be there.”
Nigerian military sources indicated that most troops would be returning home to relieve troops fighting under a 2-month-old state of emergency in northeast Nigeria. Troops there are complaining they have not been rotated for months.
Some human rights activists say the lack of rotation could be contributing to alleged atrocities against civilians. Nigeria’s military denies it has wantonly killed any civilians. The military sources spoke on condition of anonymity because formalities have not been completed with U.N. officials.
Despite the looming elections, political instability remains a feature in Mali along with lingering tensions involving rebel Tuaregs.
Mali Presidential candidate Tiebile Drame, a former minister who helped draw up a peace deal between the separatist rebels and the government, withdrew from the race on Wednesday. He said the country is not ready for elections that are being held under pressure from the West.
The French troops have stayed months longer than anticipated. Mali’s army remains fragile, demoralized and poorly equipped but some French officers are to stay to help train them.
Associated Press writer Michelle Faul contributed to this report from Lagos, Nigeria.