The first troops from a 100-member U.K. contingent to be deployed alongside French counter-terrorism forces in west Africa have arrived in the region, the French military said Thursday.
“The first troops from the British Chinook deployment, which will comprise three heavy transport helicopters and will be deployed in Gao [northern Mali] have arrived,” armed forces spokesman Colonel Patrik Steiger said.
The advance party from a contingent that will be in place by the end of the summer arrived in Niamey, the capital of Niger, Mali’s neighbour to the east, Steiger added.
The U.K. is to send three CH-47 Chinook helicopters, but British military personnel will not be involved in combat operations, the government said.
Steiger said the U.S.-made helicopters, which can carry about 40 troops, will be “very useful” for the mobility of the Barkhane force.
In January, Prime Minister Theresa May promised French President Emmanuel Macron that Britain would step up its support for France’s Operation Barkhane, which has been battling jihadist groups across the arid Sahel region since 2014.
May said that although Britain was preparing to leave the EU, “this does not mean that the UK is leaving Europe,” stressing Britain’s commitment to its cooperation with France in the area of defence.
The U.K. has provided regular use of a C-17 transport plane for France’s operations in the Sahel region since 2016.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012, exploiting a Taureg separatist uprising. France began a military intervention the next year that evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment with a mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region.
The French operation is not the only multinational mission in the region.
Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed last year to set up the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops to work alongside French troops as well as peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations’ Minusma stabilization mission in Mali.
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With reporting from AFP