France on Tuesday mourned the death of thirteen soldiers in a helicopter collision in Mali – its worst military loss in four decades – amid calls for its allies to shoulder more of the effort against insurgents in the Sahel.
The accident came as some senior French officials urge a strategic rethink in the vast area that has seen a flare-up of jihadist violence despite a 4,500-strong force in Mali and four other West African countries.
The soldiers died when two helicopters collided in a nocturnal operation to bolster ground troops hunting jihadists in the Liptako region, near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger.
A Tiger attack helicopter hit a Cougar military transport helicopter while engaging the enemy fleeing on motorbikes and in pick-up trucks. There were no survivors.
It was the biggest loss of French troops in a single day since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago when 58 soldiers died.
While British forces were not involved in the incident, an RAF Chinook helicopter lifted French military personnel and equipment to one of the French forward operating bases in the country, according to a MoD spokesman.
One of the victims was the son of French Senator Jean-Marie Bockel, a centrist and former government minister who sits on the senate’s armed forces committee.
"These 13 heroes had just one goal: To protect us. I bow my head in front of the pain of their families and comrades," said President Emmanuel Macron, who will lead a national tribute with full military honours to the men at Les Invalides in Paris in the coming days.
The National Assembly held a minute’s silence and an investigation was opened into the causes of the accident.
France first sent troops to Mali in 2013 after a separatist uprising was essentially hijacked by Islamist extremists, mostly linked to al Qaeda, who took over cities in the country’s northern desert.
But although French forces drove the militants out of their urban strongholds, they were able to regroup in remote and barely governed rural areas of Mali and neighbouring states in the Sahel region, on the southern fringes of the Sahara Desert.
France and its local allies have struggled to contain the resurgent militants, with its counterterrorism mission, Operation Barkhane, becoming arguably less effective over the years even as it has grown more ambitious in scope and size.
Successful individual operations, the most recent a 17-day mission mounted with local African armies to clear militant camps in the Mali and Burkina Faso borderlands, have yielded fewer decisive breakthroughs.
Not only have 44 French soldiers now lost their lives on active service, but militant groups have been bolstered by the arrival of Islamist State recruits from Syria and Iraq, where the movement has largely been defeated.
More than 200 soldiers from regional nations and international peacekeepers have been killed since September in Mali alone, with dozens more killed in Burkina Faso.
France receives help from US intelligence and logistical and military contributions from the UK, Spain, Estonia and Denmark. The RAF has three Chinook helicopters and 90 personnel in Mali assisting the French counter-terrorist operation. Britain has also announced that it will send 250 military personnel to support a UN peacekeeping mission in Mali next year.
But some in France have expressed frustration at the level of European support.
Speaking on RTL radio after the accident, French former airforce general Jean-Paul Palomeros that a "purely national" intervention had reached its limits.
"Our European friends, if they want to ensure their long-term security against terrorism and jihadism, must help us and step up now," he said.
In June, Florence Parly, France’s armed forces minister warned: “Europe will have two swords of Damocles over its head: terrorism and kidnappings, but also illegal immigrants since many are travelling through these regions."
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But on Tuesday, she insisted France received “valuable support from our European allies”, which was “growing by the day.”
French public support for the regional counter-terrorism operation remains relatively high in the wake of terror attacks back home.
But some senior defence officials say the area is turning into a military quagmire.
Writing in Le Monde, General Bruno Clément-Bollée, former head of security and defence cooperation at the French foreign ministry, warned that France must undertake a “total rethink” of its presence on the ground and give “local players a leading role” or face “popular pressure to leave”.