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Mali: ‘Terrorists’ killed in French airstrike near Niger border

Aircraft attached to the France-led Operation Barkhane in the Sahel struck “terrorists” in Mali near the border with Niger killing nine, the Ministry of the Armed Forces said on Friday.

The operation was launched on Wednesday, July 17 after a Malian soldier was killed and two others wounded in an ambush on their convoy.

The soldiers had been part of a “logistical escort mission” from the border post of Labbézanga to Gao and were ambushed between Fafa and Bentia, a Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) statement said, adding that a provisional assessment from sweeps on the ground was that five “terrorists” had been killed.

The Barkhane operations center was notified of an attack on a convoy of 10 vehicles between Asongo and the border near the village of Fafa at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the French Ministry release said.

It said that the convoy was split in two during the attack, and FAMa reinforcements were dispatched from Asongo to the north and Labbézanga to the south, and a drone was redirected to the area.

In Wednesday release, the French military said a light aircraft was also involved in intelligence-gathering during the operation.

The gunfight ended at 1 p.m. and the reinforcements reported the FAMa casualties, while motorcycles were seen leaving the area.

At 1:50 p.m., the “intelligence resources deployed made it possible to detect a suspicious individual on a motorcycle” that led to a group of men, estimated to be around 15-strong, around 30 km (19 miles) southeast of the attack area. The men were “hidden under trees, probably with resources under cover, in accordance with the practices of terrorist groups.”

The release said weapons were detected and an operation was launched to “neutralize” the group.

An airstrike was carried out at 4:50 p.m. in which two bombs were dropped on the “assembly points.” The aircraft was not specified, but French Mirage 2000 jets are frequently used in strike missions in the Sahel.

Tigre attack helicopters then moved in, firing their guns to fix the enemy, and then, 20 minutes after the initial strikes, a detachment of parachute commandos was deployed to control and search the area.

Nine “enemies” were killed and two captured and a range of resources were discovered including weapons, motorcycles and communications equipment.

The commandos were recovered from the area at 9 p.m.

The Barkhane force has been active in the Mali-Niger border region in recent weeks. In June, the 13-day Operation Aconit involved a joint Mali-France commando operation that killed 20 ‘terrorists’ in Mali’s Menaka area, and 18 Islamic State militants were killed by French and Nigerien troops near Tongo Tongo, around 120 km east of the Labbézanga border crossing.

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 U.N. 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.

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. On July 8, outgoing U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said the British military deployment to the Sahel will be extended, with the Ministry of Defence later confirming that the extension will be for at least six months.

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.

EU pledges €138 million more to support G5 Sahel Joint Force

With reporting from AFP

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