French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the military to review operations against Islamist militants in West Africa and pressed his allies to do more after 13 soldiers died in a combat mission.
In his first public remarks since France suffered its heaviest single loss of troops for nearly four decades, Macron said those seeking to understand the cost of France’s mission in the Sahel should witness a ceremony to honour the dead soldiers.
“France is acting in the Sahel on everyone’s behalf,” Macron told a news conference with NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.
“Our mission there is important. The situation we face compels me to examine all our strategic options.”
France, a former colonial power, is the only Western country with a significant military presence waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region.
Macron told his government and top military leaders to look hard at France’s operations in the region, adding, “I told them all options are open”.
He gave no indication what the options are. French officials rule out withdrawing its 4 500-strong force from the region, fearing this could lead to more chaos.
Thirteen French soldiers were killed in Mali on Monday when two helicopters collided in the dark after being called in to provide air support during a combat mission to track down a band of Islamic State fighters.
The French government faced criticism at home that its troops are bogged down, while critical voices increasingly scorn Paris for failing to restore stability and anti-French sentiment grows.
Thirty-eight French troops have died in the Sahel since France sent troops to Mali in 2013.
COMMON CAUSE ON TERRORISM
As France mourns the dead commandos, Macron wants to incorporate more European allies into operations and ensure local troops are better trained and equipped.
French officials bemoan peace accords agreed in Mali in 2015 are still not implemented and political willpower to do so is missing.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers there was a need for more political action in Mali and a common desire to defeat terrorism, adding that was also the case for neighbouring Burkina Faso.
Despite French troops, 15 000 UN peacekeepers in Mali and pan-regional forces, Islamist militants strengthened their foothold across the Sahel region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Macron’s government denies it is bogged down in an intractable conflict. Monday’s deaths provoked renewed public comparisons with the US’ drawn-out military involvement in Afghanistan.
France complained to European allies it bears the brunt of a counter-terrorism operation that benefits all Europe. It hopes to persuade them to send Special Forces to back up local troops, Le Drian said.
Asked about burden sharing, Macron said: “If people want to understand what they call ‘cost-sharing’, they can come to the ceremonies France is organising for the dead soldiers. There they will see the price.”