UK extends helicopter deployment to France-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel

The British military deployment to the France-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region of Africa will be extended, outgoing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday, July 8.

In her last speech on U.K. defense at the Permanent Joint Headquarters and NATO’s maritime headquarters in Northwood, northwest London, May noted that “RAF Chinooks from 18(B) squadron have been supporting French operations in Mali for some time.”

“The mission-critical airlift capacity they provide allows French ground troops to conduct anti-terror operations that make the Sahel more stable and, ultimately, make both our nations safer,” May said.

“I am pleased to announce that the operation will be extended, so this vital partnership can continue,” May said, without specifying the length of the extension.

Update The U.K. Ministry of Defence in a later release said the extension will be “a minimum of six months.”

Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said that increasing instability across the Sahel poses “a real threat to European security.”

“It is right that we extend our commitment to the counter-terror operation in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger,” Mordaunt said. “By providing essential support to our French partners our Armed Forces are helping to build stability and deny terrorists a haven from which to plan attacks.”

Three U.K. Royal Air Force Chinook heavy lift helicopters are based in Gao in eastern Mali, and have supported Operation Barkhane since becoming operational last August.

Most recently, RAF Chinooks resupplied French and partner troops during Operation Aconit, which targeted Islamic State militants in Mali and Niger between between June 7 and 19.

RAF Chinook helicopters in Mali
Three RAF Chinook helicopters beside their temporary hangers in Gao, Mali. Image: @DefenceHQ/Twitter

In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north of Mali.

France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.

But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. Large swathes of Mali remain outside government control.

The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel.

In addition to the RAF Chinooks, 50 Estonian soldiers are deployed in Gao in a force-protection capacity.

In February, the Danish government said that it plans to send two transport helicopters to support Operation Barkhane. The government’s plans must be approved by parliament, and the deployment would see around 70 soldiers deployed for a one-year period starting at the end of 2019.

Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA mission in Mali, and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel from the five members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

France-led cross-border Operation Aconit kills 18 more Islamic State fighters in Niger

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