Mali: RAF C-17 makes first direct flight to Gao to resupply British forces

A U.K. Royal Air Force C-17 Globemaster has landed at Gao airport in Mali for the first time, the RAF said.

The aircraft from 99 Squadron flew from RAF Brize Norton on October 6, the first direct flight direct to resupply the United Kingdom’s Operation Newcombe.

Supplies have previously been flown to Niger and then to Gao. The RAF will now supply the detachment with monthly direct flights.

The U.K. has provided regular use of a C-17 transport plane for France’s operations in the Sahel since 2016.

Three RAF Chinook heavy lift helicopters are based in Gao and have since August supported the French Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission in Mali.

The U.K. has stressed that British military personnel will not be involved in combat operations.

The Chinooks, supported by around 90 British troops, are providing “niche logistical support to French combat forces conducting counter-terrorism operations,” the MoD said in August. The first U.K. troops arrived in Mali on June 14.

The deployment is in addition to the U.K.’s support of United Nations, European Union and G5 Sahel Joint Force operations “aimed at preventing extremists from using the ungoverned space in the Sahel to plan and launch attacks on Europe, as well as countering the illegal trade in people, drugs, weapons and wildlife,” the MoD said in August.

British operations are not limited to the base in Gao.

“We have carried a huge amount of troops and equipment between here and a forward operating base in the north, right up to the Algerian border,” Wing Commander Matt Roberts, the most senior British presence on Gao’s French base, told the Telegraph on October 8.

In January, Prime Minister Theresa May promised French President Emmanuel Macron that the U.K. would step up its support for Operation Barkhane, which has been battling jihadist groups across the Sahel region since 2014.

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, encompassing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

Around 4,500 French personnel are deployed to Operation Barkhane, and they work alongside the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force, as well as peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations Minusma stabilization mission in Mali.

Up to 50 troops from Estonia’s Estpla-26 infantry team are deployed in a force-protection capacity in Gao in support of Barkhane.

France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly said on October 8 while on a visit to Chad that the G5 Sahel joint force has scheduled three operations in coming weeks. The commander of the force, Maritanian general Hanena Ould Sidi will move the G5 Sahel Joint Force headquarters to Mali’s capital Bamako after a suicide bomb and gun attack destroyed the previous HQ in Sevare.

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