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French army general denies jihadists brought down helicopters in Mali

An NH90 military helicopter with operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, 29 July 2019.
An NH90 military helicopter with operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, 29 July 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Two French army helicopters that crashed in Mali on Monday had not been under fire from jihadists from the Islamic State armed group, French army chief of staff François Lecointre has told RFI.

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"Jihadists did not fire on our helicopters," General Lecointre told RFI on Friday, denying claims by Islamic State that it was behind the crash.

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 Islamist militants.

The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) said the helicopters collided after one of them retreated under fire from ISWAP fighters, according to a statement shared by U.S.-based SITE, which monitors jihadist websites.

"It's totally false," said General Francois Lecointre.  "The truth is that there was a collision during a very complex combat operation," he said.

"The French army is telling the truth: we owe it to our soldiers and to the families of our dead colleagues."

"There was no withdrawal of an aircraft in the face of fire from the jihadists," he added.

The general said the helicopter black boxes were being analysed for details of exactly what happened.  

Call for more support in the Sahel

The loss of the 13 soldiers marks France's heaviest single loss of troops for nearly four decades.

Lecointre also said France had no intention of withdrawing from Mali but that it needed more support from its allies, reiterating comments made by President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday .

“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, a former colonial power, 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 top military leaders to look hard at France’s operations in the region, adding, “I told them all options are open”.

He gave no indication what those options were. However, French officials have ruled out withdrawing its 4,500-strong force from the region, fearing this could lead to even more chaos.

(with newswires)

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