Thirteen French soldiers have died in the crash of two helicopters during operations against Islamic State militants in Mali.
Full details haven’t been disclosed but it appears a French Army Tiger attack helicopter and a Cougar transport helicopter collided in darkness while flying at low level in an operation against fleeing jihadists near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger.
The two aircraft crashed close to each other, killing the two Tiger crewmen and 11 on the Cougar, including its crew and a group of French Army commandos.
This is the largest loss of life of French soldiers in a single incident since an aircraft crash in Djibouti in 1986, which claimed 19 lives. This brings the loss of French military personnel in operations in Mali to 41.
Among the dead was the officer son of a French senator.
French Army Airbus HAD Tiger helicopters are similar to the Australian Army’s Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters.
With Islamic State activities in Iraq and Syria mostly curtailed, the Sahel region of Africa, the region beneath the Sahara that includes Mali, is emerging as a major front in the fight against that group and others such as al Qaeda offshoot Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin.
France first intervened in Mali in 2013 in support of the national government of Mali, which would likely have fallen without external support.
This now involves around 3,000 troops on what is known as Operation Barkhane in support of local military forces. The UK and US have both provided logistic support.
No Australian personnel are involved and this is a fight little known in Australia.
However, France’s active engagement in combating Islamic State was certainly understood in Canberra at the time the government was considering whether to buy French, German or Japanese submarines.
Helicopters have played a key role in military operations in Mali, a desert nation almost double the size of France.