ABIDJAN (Reuters) – France killed 33 militants in Mali on Saturday using attack helicopters, ground troops and a drone near the border with Mauritania where a group linked to al Qaeda operates, the French army said.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the operation in a speech to the French community in Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan, describing it as a major success.
“This morning … we were able to neutralize 33 terrorists, take one prisoner and free two Malian gendarmes who had been held hostage,” Macron said during the speech.
It was not the same area of Mali where 13 French soldiers died last month in a helicopter crash.
That was the biggest loss of French troops in a single day since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago and raised questions about the human cost to France of its six-year campaign against Islamist insurgents in West Africa.
France, the former colonial power in Mali and Ivory Coast, is the only Western country with a significant military presence in Mali and the wider Sahel, an arid region of West Africa below the Sahara desert.
French officials have expressed frustration that some nations in the region have not done more to curb criticism of its interventions. Paris is also vexed that some countries have not fully implemented deals to bring more stability to areas of the Sahel with little law and order.
French army command said the operation took place overnight near the Mauritanian border about 150 km (90 miles) northwest of the town of Mopti in Mali.
French forces aboard helicopters used a drone to guide them to a target in a forest-covered zone where Katiba Macina, a group linked to al Qaeda, operates, French army command said.
It was the same forest where France wrongly claimed it had killed Katiba Macina leader Amadou Koufa a year ago. A spokesman for the French army’s chief of staff declined to say at this stage whether Koufa was the target again this time.
Reporting by Clotaire Achi in Abidjan, Tangi Salaun and Gus Trompiz in Paris; Editing by David Clarke