Thirteen French soldiers died in Mali when two helicopters collided at low altitude as they swooped in to support ground forces in combat with Islamist militants.
It was the biggest loss of French troops in a single day since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago when 58 soldiers died.
The ground commandos were tracking a band of militants on pick-up trucks and motorcycles. After identifying the group on Monday, Tiger and Cougar helicopters were sent to reinforce, along with a combat jet.
French President Emmanuel Macron expressed “deep sadness” at the loss.
“The President of the Republic salutes with the greatest respect the memory of these soldiers,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement. “He bows to the grief of their families and their loved ones.”
France, the former colonial power in the region, first intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out militants occupying the north. It still has a 4 500-strong Barkhane force countering insurgencies in the wider region.
Rather than stabilising, security progressively worsened.
Islamist militants with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthened their foothold across the arid region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Two years ago, four US Special Forces died in a firefight with militants in Niger, an incident which shone a light on Washington’s Special Forces-led counter-terrorism activity in the West African Sahel.
Lawmakers in France’s National Assembly will hold a minute’s silence in honour of those who died in the collision.
In a message of condolence to Macron, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the French soldiers “died for Mali, they died for the Sahel, they died for freedom.”
FRANCE BEARS BRUNT
The collision occurred at 19h40 local time as the helicopters manoeuvred ahead of engaging the militants, the army said.
The Tiger attack helicopter and multi-purpose Cougar hit the ground a short distance apart. There were no survivors.
Monday’s deaths bring the total number of French soldiers killed in the Sahel since 2013 to 38, officials said.
More than 200 soldiers from regional nations and international peacekeepers have been killed since September in Mali, with dozens more killed in Burkina Faso.
France’s hard-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, with a small representation in parliament, said it was time to exit the Sahel region.
“We have the impression there is no strategy, no exit plan,” Bastien Lachaud, a France Insoumise lawmaker in parliament’s defence committee told Reuters. “Government must say when France will leave Mali.”
France maintains troops in the Sahel as part of Barkhane counter-terrorism operations, while some European countries and the United States provide logistic support, trainers and some Special Forces.
A separate regional force, the G5 Sahel, made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, is underfunded and hobbled by poor co-ordination three years after launch.
That left much of the onus on France. Paris is frustrated it is taking the brunt of ground operations but dismisses suggestions it is stuck in a pointless fight.
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly told a parliamentary hearing on November 20 the French mission was not stuck and urged European partners to do more to support it.
“Europe is not immune to these security concerns, because if the Islamic State and al Qaeda branches were to establish themselves in a sustainable way in the Sahel, this would pose a security problem for Europe ,” she said.
“I do not think we are bogged down.”