France will never secure total victory over Islamist insurgents in West Africa, its top general said after 13 soldiers died in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali, France’s worst single loss of troops in 36 years.
General Francois Lecointre said France’s military role in the Sahel region was “useful, good and necessary”, but it was hard to see the moment when the war would finally be won.
The remarks could embolden opponents of President Emmanuel Macron, in particular the far-left, who demand France plans a way out of the conflict.
“We will never achieve a definitive victory,” Lecointre, chief of staff of the armed forces, told France Inter radio.
The 13 French soldiers died in Mali on Monday when two helicopters collided in the dark after being called to provide air support during a combat mission to track down a band of Islamic State militant fighters.
One source said the operation was in reaction to an attack in Indelimane, Menaka region, in October that killed at least 53 Malian soldiers and was claimed by Islamic State.
France intervened in Mali in 2013 to repel insurgents advancing from northern strongholds into central Mali. There are currently 4 500 French troops in the wider region, as part of “operation Barkhane”, a crescent-shaped sand dune.
Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthened their foothold. Swathes of the Sahel region are ungovernable.
“We’re getting results but have to be patient and persevere,” Lecointre said.
The black boxes from the Tiger attack and the Cougar multi-purpose helicopters were recovered, military officials said. They will be central to the accident investigation.
Defence minister, Florence Parly, is in Mali to pay tribute to the soldiers who died. France hopes to repatriate the soldiers’ bodies.
Ground commandos were tracking the militants through harsh terrain for days before making contact on Monday in the Valley of Eranga, central Mali. Air support was called in after a gun battle.
A local resident said the region where the collision occurred was lawless and overrun by jihadists.
“We call it the red zone. No-one dares wander that way,” the resident said, declining to be identified for fear of retribution.
The area is a focal point for recent French operations against Islamic State affiliated militants, according to Menastream, a risk consultancy group monitoring jihadist activity in the region.
France complained to European allies 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 soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – as it struggled to contain the violence.
Commitments so far are minimal and the French deaths will not encourage more, a western diplomat in West Africa said.
“No European government is keen on body bags,” he said.