Thirteen French military personnel died in a crash between two helicopters while combating Islamist militants in Mali, in the deadliest incident for French troops in more than three decades.
The crash brings the death toll to a total of 41 since former president François Hollande sent forces to free the Malian city of Timbuktu from Islamist extremists in January 2013. It is the largest number of casualties suffered by the French military in a single operation since 58 were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Beirut in 1983.
President Emmanuel Macron expressed on Tuesday his “deep sadness” about the deaths during “their difficult struggle against terrorism in the Sahel”.
France’s Operation Barkhane, in which 4,500 troops are fighting insurgencies in the southern reaches of the Sahara in west Africa, has struggled lately to contain the Islamist threat. In two earlier incidents this month, 37 people died in an insurgent attack on buses carrying workers to a gold mine in Burkina Faso and Isis killed more than 50 at a Malian military base.
Mr Macron has portrayed the Sahel operation as essential for the security of Europe because it sought to prevent the desertic area from becoming a refuge for Isis militants and other insurgent groups. Defence minister Florence Parly last week urged EU allies to help more, saying the French-led operation was facing the “very difficult challenge” of asymmetric war in Mali and its neighbours in the Sahel. The French have received support from US intelligence and logistical and military contributions from the UK, Spain, Estonia and Denmark.
The two helicopters, a Tiger and a Cougar, were flying at low altitude on Monday night in support of Barkhane troops fighting “terrorist armed groups” in the Liptako region of southern Mali, according to the French defence ministry.
“Engaged on the ground for several days, the commandos were tracking a group of terrorists found a few hours earlier who were using pick-ups and motorcycles” when the two helicopters collided, the ministry said on Tuesday. There were no survivors among the crew or soldiers on board.