Mali: Estonia troops to begin operations in Gao

Estonia's Estpla-26 infantry team is deployed in support of France's Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel

Estonian troops in Mali have finalized their preparations and will begin support for France’s Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel, the Kaitsevägi (Estonia’s Defense Forces) said in a release.

Estonia’s Estpla-26 infantry team arrived in Mali on August 8, joining French and British forces in Gao. It is tasked with ensuring the security of the Gao military base and its surroundings, manning checkpoints, providing escorts and patrollling around the military base.

French and Estonian troops train in Mali
French and Estonian troops train in Mali, August 2018. Image: Kaitsevägi

During their two-week lead-in period, soldiers familiarized themselves with the base and its checkpoints and French and Estonian forces familiarized themselves with each other’s equipment, the Tuesday, August 21 release said.

The preparatory phase ended on Sunday, when the group verified the reliability and accuracy of their weapons.

Estonian troops train in Mali
Estonian troops train in Mali, where they are deployed in support of France’s Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel, August 2018. Image: Kaitsevägi

In March, Estonia’s government asked parliament for a mandate to send 50 troops to Mali for one year as part of Operation Barkhane.

“By participating in an operation with the aim of creating stability on the southern edge of NATO and the E.U., we support our strong European ally,” Estonian Defence Minister Juri Luik said at the time.

Estonia contributes personnel to two other operations in Mali – the E.U. training mission EUTM-Mali and the United Nations peacekeeping mission Minusma.

In May, the E.U. Council extended the mandate of EUTM-Mali to May 2020. It also amended the mandate to include the provision of advice and training support to the G5 Sahel Joint Force. It also allocated an increased two-year budget of €59.7 million ($69 million), compared to €33.4 million for the previous mandate.

In June, the E.U.’s diplomatic chief proposed a new €10.5 billion ($12.4 billion) “peace facility” that could pay for military equipment, including lethal weaponry, for partner countries in crisis zones such as the Central African Republic and Africa’s Sahel region.

On August 16, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said that three Royal Air Force Chinook heavy lift helicopters were fully operational and supporting French counter-terrorism operations in Mali.

The U.K. has provided regular use of a C-17 transport plane for France’s operations in the Sahel 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 U.N.’s Minusma stabilization mission in Mali.

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