BAMAKO: The French army handed over its security operation in the Malian desert city of Timbuktu to Burkina Faso troops on Tuesday, as part of a phased withdrawal from its troubled former colony.
Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants controlled Timbuktu along with other key northern Mali cities for nearly 10 months until being driven out by the French-led Operation Serval in January.
"Today, during an official ceremony in Timbuktu, the French troops have passed on the torch to the troops of Burkina Faso for security operations on the ground," Malian Army captain Famba Coulibaly told AFP.
The chiefs of staff of the Malian and Burkina Faso armies attended the ceremony, Coulibaly added, alongside senior officials from Operation Serval.
He told AFP there would be 650 Burkinabes on the ground by next week.
France has begun a phased withdrawal of its 4,000 soldiers, with all but 1,000 expected to have left by the end of the year.
Chad President Idriss Deby, who sent 2,000 troops to Mali, announced last week that its forces would be staging their own withdrawal ahead of schedule from the present 6,000-strong African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA).
The French-led operation has forced the extremists from the cities they seized in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup that overthrew Mali's government in March last year.
But French and African forces have faced continuing suicide blasts and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.
Militants used the confusion created by a suicide bomber in March to infiltrate Timbuktu and engage French and Malian troops in a day-long battle that left four rebels, a Malian soldier and a civilian dead.
A week earlier, a suicide bomber blew up a car near the Timbuktu airport, killing one Malian soldier, before launching an overnight assault on the city.
The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the three Islamist groups that had seized the north, which said it had "opened a new front" in the fabled Saharan caravan city.