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Thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali helicopter accident

French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at a base in Gao, northern Mali, on August 1, 2019.
French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at a base in Gao, northern Mali, on August 1, 2019. Benoit Tessier, REUTERS

Thirteen French were killed on Monday in a helicopter accident during an operation against jihadist militants in northern Mali, the heaviest single loss for the French military in nearly four decades.

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The accident, a collision between two helicopters, occurred while the forces were engaging jihadist fighters who have staged a series of deadly strikes in northern Mali in recent weeks, the French president's office said in a statement on Tuesday.

President Emmanuel Macron expressed his “deep sadness” at the deaths, saluting the courage of French troops deployed in Mali and sharing his condolences for the families of the slain soldiers. 

Six officers and a master corporal were among the victims in the deadliest accident since France intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive back an Islamist insurgency. 

The accident brings to 41 the number of French soldiers killed in Mali since the intervention began. It marks the heaviest loss for the French army since a 1983 attack in Beirut, in which 58 paratroopers were killed.

"These 13 heroes had just one goal: To protect us. I bow my head in front of the pain of their families and comrades," Macron said on Twitter.

The accident occurred late Monday while the helicopters were reinforcing ground troops pursuing the insurgents in the Liptako region, near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger, the armed forces ministry said.

A Tiger attack helicopter collided with a Cougar military transport helicopter while engaging the insurgents fleeing on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks.

Both aircraft crashed not far from each other, killing all on board, the ministry said.       

One of the victims was the son of French Senator Jean-Marie Bockel, a centrist and former government minister who sits on the senate's armed forces committee, the father confirmed to AFP.

An inquiry has been opened into the cause of the collision, Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a statement.

France currently has more than 4,500 troops countering Islamist insurgencies in the sparsely-populated Sahel region, where violence has proliferated in recent years.

Earlier this month, a French soldier was killed by a roadside bomb while patrolling Mali's eastern border region.

The Sahel region is the scene of repeated clashes between jihadists and local forces backed by troops from Western countries.

Northern Mali came under the control of al Qaeda-linked jihadists after Mali's army failed to quash a rebellion there in 2012.

The French-led military campaign pushed the jihadists back in 2013, but the militants have since regrouped and widened their hit-and-run raids and landmine attacks to central and southern Mali.

In addition to French troops, the UN has around 15,000 peacekeeping troops stationed in the country.

A map of French soldiers killed in overseas operations since 1970.
A map of French soldiers killed in overseas operations since 1970. France 24

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
 

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