By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday he has ordered his military to assess its operations against Islamist militants in West Africa and all options are open, after 13 soldiers died during a combat mission this week.
In his first public remarks since France suffered its heaviest single loss of troops for nearly four decades, Macron said those seeking to understand the cost of France’s mission in the Sahel should witness a ceremony to honour the dead soldiers.
“France is acting in the Sahel on everyone’s behalf,” an emotional Macron told a news conference with NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.
“Our mission there is important. Nevertheless, the situation we face compels me today to examine all our strategic options.”
France is the only Western country with a significant military presence waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region south of the Sahara desert.
Macron said he had told his government and military top brass to look hard at the nature of France’s operations in the region, adding, “I told them all options are open”.
The 13 French soldiers were killed in Mali on Monday when two helicopters collided in the dark after being called in to provide air support during a combat mission to track down a band of Islamic State fighters.
As France mourns the dead commandos, Macron is under mounting pressure from leftist opponents and military analysts to draw up a concrete plan for the withdrawal of the 4,500 waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider region.
Thirty eight French troops have been killed in the West African Sahel since France sent troops to Mali in 2013.
On Wednesday, France’s top general acknowledged France would never achieve a total victory over al Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militants who have strengthened their foothold in a region spanning from Mauritania to Chad.
Macron’s government denies France is bogged down in an intractable conflict. But Monday’s deaths have provoked renewed public comparisons with the United States’ drawn-out military involvement in Afghanistan.
Malian Foreign Minister Tiebile Drame said the comparison was unjust.
“The Sahel is Europe’s southern border. It’s normal that France has an interest,” Drame told Radio France International.
France has, however, complained to European allies that it is bearing the brunt of a counter-terrorism operation that benefits all Europe.
Asked about burden sharing, Macron replied: “If people want to understand what they call ‘cost-sharing’, they can come on Monday to the ceremonies France is organising for the dead soldiers. There they will see the price.”
(Reporting by Richard Lough and Sophie Louet; Editing by Frances Kerry)