French defence minister visits Mali as France mourns soldiers killed in crash
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France’s Defence Minister Florence Parly arrived in northern Mali on Wednesday, two days after a helicopter collision killed 13 French soldiers fighting jihadist militants linked to the Islamic State group.
Monday’s crash on a moonless night led to the heaviest single loss for the French military in nearly four decades.
An investigation has begun into the cause. The military has said the helicopters were flying very low while supporting French commandos on the ground near the border with Niger.
France’s operation in West and Central Africa is its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. The deaths draw new attention to a worrying front in the global fight against extremism, one in which France and local countries have pleaded for more support.
French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the military operation during Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting.
Macron stressed that it aims at “enhancing our own security” and providing “important support” to African countries, Ndiaye said.
A national tribute ceremony will take place next Monday at the Invalides monument in Paris, where France traditionally pays tribute to fallen soldiers and national heroes.
'We will never achieve a definitive victory'
With the country still reeling from the shock of Monday night's deadly crash, a top general in the French army told a local radio station on Wednesday that France would never secure total victory over Islamist insurgents in West Africa.
General François Lecointre said France's military role in the Sahel region south of the Sahara was "useful, good and necessary", but it was hard to see the moment when the war would finally be won.
"We will never achieve a definitive victory," Lecointre, chief of staff of the armed forces, told France Inter radio.
Most French politicians have praised the country’s military operation in the Sahel as key in the global fight against extremism. But France has also complained to European allies that it is bearing the brunt of a counter-terrorism operation that benefits all Europe.
In June, amid a spike in militant attacks, France urged European powers to provide special forces to support the G5 Sahel force – made up of thousands of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – as it struggled to contain a rise in violence.
Commitments so far had been minimal and the deaths of the French troops this week is unlikely to encourage other European countries to commit troops on such dangerous terrain.
Some in Mali in recent weeks have loudly criticised the French military’s presence as the extremist threat grows and spreads into neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year, with well over 100 Malian troops killed in the past two months alone.
However, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a statement that “Mali knows what this is costing [France] to send its children to the Sahel in defense of this cause, the cause of peace”.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)