France honours 13 soldiers killed in Mali helicopter

Paris (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron was to lead a national tribute Monday for 13 soldiers killed while battling jihadist insurgents in Mali, a disaster which has forced the nation to confront the costs of a years-long effort in West Africa that appears to have no end in sight.

The soldiers died when their helicopters collided last Monday while chasing jihadists in northern Mali where militant violence has soared in recent months.

Their coffins, draped in the red, white and blue of the French flag, were brought home from the French military base at Gao, near the restive border with Burkina Faso and Niger, on Saturday.

The ceremony will be held at the Invalides military hospital and museum in Paris, beginning at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT), when Macron will bestow the Legion d'Honneur on the fallen soldiers.

Parisians will also be able to pay their respects as the coffins are brought across the Alexandre III bridge and the ceremony will be broadcast on a giant screen set up outside the Invalides.

The crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France's 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.

They are tasked with training local security forces to take on the jihadista, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.

Forty-one French soldiers have now died in the Sahel over the past six years.

Macron said the government would begin a thorough review of Barkhane in the wake of the helicopter accident, vowing that "all options are on the table."

He also reiterated his call for EU allies to step up their participation in the West Africa operation after years of failing to secure significant support -- only Britain has contributed helicopters and security personnel, while the US provides intelligence on jihadist movements across an area the size of Western Europe.

- Cartoon controversy -

So far, only the far-left France Unbowed party has openly called for the Barkhane troops to be brought home, but the deteriorating security situation in Mali has many officials questioning the force's role.

Controversy flared over the weekend after the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons associating the 13 soldiers' deaths with the army's recent recruitment campaign.

In one drawing, Macron stands before a coffin in front of the slogan: "I joined the ranks to stand out from the crowd."

The French army's chief of staff, General Thierry Burkhard, expressed his "indignation" at the cartoons.

In an open letter to Charlie Hebdo's editor, Laurent "Riss" Sourisseau, he accused the magazine of having sullied the period of mourning for the bereaved families.

Sourisseau defended on Sunday the magazines's "satirical spirit", while acknowledging the importance of the work of the French army and the soldiers' sacrifice.

But Sourisseau, who was wounded when jihadist attackers massacred 12 people in an attack at the magazine's offices in January 2015, declined Burkhard's invitation to attend the Invalides ceremony.

"We know that their mission is difficult and that they are dealing with merciless enemies," he wrote in a response to Burkhard, seen by AFP.

- Mali on edge -

Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will also attend the ceremony, as he tries to defuse growing hostility at home to French and other foreign forces helping to fight Islamic militants.

France's intervention began in 2013, when insurgents swept into Mali's north and rapidly advanced before being pushed back.

But despite France's presence the jihadists have regrouped to carry out deadly attacks and violence has spread to neighbouring countries.

Two Malian gendarmes were shot dead Sunday in the eastern town of Menaka, a local official said.

Keita on Saturday urged Malians not to "bite the hands of those who give us theirs today".

He called on all political parties, including the main opposition group, to participate in a national debate starting December 14 on how to solve a security crisis that experts agree cannot be won solely with military means.

Since January, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in jihadist violence in Mali and Burkina Faso, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five countries, the UN said this month.