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France's war in Mali: Why are French troops still fighting jihadists in the Sahel?

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French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp (PfOD) during the Operation Barkhane in Gao, Mali, August 1, 2019.
French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp (PfOD) during the Operation Barkhane in Gao, Mali, August 1, 2019. -
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REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo
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In a message of condolence to French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said 13 French soldiers killed in a helicopter crash a day earlier "died for Mali, they died for the Sahel, they died for freedom."

France has had thousands of soldiers stationed in Mali since January 2013, when it intervened to help the Malian government take back swathes of its northern territory - including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao - that had been seized by hardline Islamic rebels.

The conflict acted as magnet for extremist groups in the Sahel, a region of Africa that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea and encompasses no less than 14 nations, including parts of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad and the Central African Republic.

Fight against militants

France has had an interest in the Sahel since the colonial era, when the territory of French West Africa encompassed Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Although Macron inherited the conflict in Mali when he took power in 2017, he has repeatedly committed to the fight against extremists in the Sahel. Indeed, he travelled to Mali to meet President Keita in his first week as head of state.

In a part of the world where borders are relatively porous and government and police presence in remote areas weak, militant groups have thrived in the lawless mostly-desert regions of the Sahel. Groups of this nature have staged bloody attacks on military posts in both Mali and Burkina Faso in recent months, with 50 killed in the north of the country as recently as November.

REUTERS/Johanna Geron
French President Emmanuel Macron weclomes Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as he arrives for a lunch at the Elysee Palace as part of the Paris Peace Summit in Paris, France, November 12, 2019.REUTERS/Johanna Geron

But Monday’s accident - which took place as French soldiers pursued militant fighters - was the largest single loss of life of French troops since 1983, when militants bombed the barracks of the Multinational Force in Lebanon, killing 58 French soldiers and 214 Americans.

At least 38 French soldiers have died since France intervened in Mali in 2013, while more than 200 soldiers from regional nations in Africa and international peacekeepers were killed in September alone, with dozens more dead in attacks in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

Although other European nations provide logistical support, France is the only nation with a permanent military presence on the ground in the Sahel, a presence that has been criticised by parties of both the left and the right in France.

'Europe is not immune'

The government, for its part, wants to see other European nations do more in the fight against extremist groups in the Sahel, which could serve as a safe-haven for jihadist groups today in the same way that Afghanistan and Sudan did in the 2000s and 1990s.

On November 20, France urged other European nations to do more in west Africa, pointing out that if jihadist groups are able to operate from the region, it threatens the continent as a whole.

"Europe is not immune to these security concerns,” said Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly.

“If the Islamic State and al-Qaida branches were to establish themselves in a sustainable way in the Sahel, this would pose a security problem for Europe as a whole.”

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