Dozens of militants killed in joint operation in Mali, French military says

Thirty militants were killed in a clash with French and Malian troops near Mali’s border with Niger, the French military said on Thursday.

The engagement, involving a group of about 60 jihadists, took place on Sunday, in the Akabar area, spokesperson Colonel Patrik Steiger said, adding that Malian forces sustained “losses” but there were no French casualties.

French commandos and Malian forces began a “reconnaissance and control operation” in the Akabar region on March 28, working in liaison with the Nigerien army and a local self-defence group, Steiger said.

“On April 1, they were confronted by an ATG [armed terrorist group] estimated to number 60 individuals, around 90 kilometres (55 miles) south of Menaka and three kilometres from the Nigerien border,” he said.

The border zone is used as a haven by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, he said.

The French deployed two Gazelle combat helicopters and two Mirage 2000 warplanes in support of their troops, but these aircraft did not carry out any attacks, Steiger said.

Akabar is around 40 km (25 miles) north of Tongo Tongo in Niger, where four U.S. troops were killed in an ambush in October. Islamic State in the Greater Sahara claimed the attack.

On March 22, five French soldiers were wounded in an attack on a joint U.N.-France base in Kidal 350 km (220 miles) north of Akabar. The attack came a day before Mali’s Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga made a landmark visit to the town, the first since 2014 by a head of government to an area still in the hands of former rebels.

That attack was claimed by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, a jihadist coalition affiliated with al-Qaeda and led by Tuareg former rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly.

France launched an intervention to chase out jihadists linked to al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013. That mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region of west Africa. Around 4,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane.

Last month, French army chief Francois Lecointre warned parliament that it would take 10 to 15 years to resolve Mali’s problems.

In recent months, several countries have pledged aid to Operation Barkhane. Estonia is to ask parliament for a mandate to send 50 troops to Mali for one year, and the U.K. government said it would send three additional Chinook helicopters to Mali for French military use.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger set up the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops to work alongside the 4,000 French troops and the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force that includes 12,000 military and 1,900 police personnel from 57 U.N. partner nations.

In March, Canada said it will deploy an infantry unit and military trainers along with attack and transport helicopters to Mali for 12 months in support the MINUSMA mission, and in February, the E.U. said it would double its financial contribution to the G5 Sahel joint force.

With reporting from AFP

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