Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

France honours its fallen in fight against extremists in the Sahel

Hundreds lined avenues in Paris to pay their respects to the soldiers as support for France’s military presence in Africa remains strong

French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday presided over the climax of a national ceremony to remember 13 soldiers killed in a helicopter crash while battling extremist militants in Mali.

Mr Macron paid tribute to the 13 soldiers: "In the name of the nation, I bow to their sacrifice, I bow before the pain of the families, in front of parents mourning a son, in front of the wives - the companions who lost a loved one - in front of the children whose fathers have been stolen by war."

The ceremony was also attended by former French presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita also attended amid growing hostility at home to French and other foreign forces helping to fight extremist militants.

President Macron posthumously bestowed the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest military and civilian honour, on the fallen soldiers.

The soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided at low altitude while supporting French ground forces engaged in combat with extremist fighters in northern Mali.

The crash was the worst loss of life in a single day for the French military since 1983, when 58 soldiers were killed in the Beirut barracks bombing.

Earlier in the day hundreds of people lined avenues in Paris to see a motorcade bearing the coffins cross the Alexandre III bridge toward the Invalides military hospital and museum.

French forces in Mali are tasked with training local security forces to take on the extremists, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.

More than 40 French soldiers have now died in the Sahel over the past six years.

France's intervention began in 2013, when insurgents swept into Mali's north and advanced rapidly before being pushed back.

But despite France's continued military presence, extremists have regrouped to carry out deadly attacks and violence has spread to neighbouring countries.

Mr Macron said the French government would begin a thorough review of Operation Barkhane in the wake of the helicopter accident, vowing that "all options are on the table".

He also reiterated his call for EU allies to step up their participation in the West Africa operation after years of failing to secure significant support.

Only Britain has contributed helicopters and security personnel, while the US provides intelligence on extremist movements across an area the size of western Europe.

So far, only the far-left France Unbowed party has openly called for the Barkhane troops to be brought home.

An Ifop poll for the Lettre de l'Expansion newsletter, published on Monday, showed that 58 per cent of respondents support the Sahel operation, a level hardly changed from a previous poll in March 2013.

Since January, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Mali and Burkina Faso, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five countries, the UN said this month.

Updated: December 2, 2019 07:18 PM

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