President Emmanuel Macron said French forces had “neutralised” several dozen jihadists in Mali on Saturday, as he visited West Africa with a pledge to give new force to the battle against Islamist militants in the region.
The operation involving teams of commandos and attack helicopters in the flashpoint city of Mopti in central Mali came just weeks after 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash as they hunted jihadists in the country’s north.
Despite a French troop presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict that erupted in 2012 has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Macron arrived as French and UN troop presence has came under fire from critics questioning the military role of the former colonial power in the region as jihadist attacks have been on the rise.
Macron said in a speech to the French community in Ivory Coast that 33 “terrorists” had been “neutralised”, a term a source close to the presidency said meant they had been killed.
French soldiers also released two Malian gendarmes being held by jihadists, he said. “This considerable success shows the commitment of our forces, the support that we bring to Mali, to the region and to our own security,” Macron said.
“We have had losses, we also have victories this morning thanks to the commitment of our soldiers and Operation Barkhane,” he said, referring to the France’s military operation against Islamist militants in the Sahel.
Last month’s crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France’s operation.
Macron arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to celebrate Christmas with French troops but the jihadist insurgency in the region was the top item on Macron’s agenda during his 48-hour stay.
The leaders of the anti-jihadist G5 Sahel military alliance are due to attend a summit in France on January 13, when Macron said they would clarify the “political and strategic framework” of the operation after tensions emerged.
“I cannot ask our soldiers to take risks to fight against terrorism and the security of these countries and on the other hand to have public opinions of these same countries believing in untruths,” Macron said.
“France is not there with imperial intentions… I will not allow myself to be attacked, I will not allow our soldiers to be attacked with this type of argument.”
Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on Saturday told French television the G5 leaders – Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad will deliver a message demanding a “respectable and respectful” relationship with the former colonial power.
The French armed forces ministry in a statement said the Mopti military operation targeted a camp where jihadists had gathered in a densely wooded area and fighting continued into the morning.
“Guided by a Reaper drone, a helicopter assault was carried out at night by dozens of commandos supported by Tiger helicopters,” it said.
French forces captured a stash of heavy weaponry, four vehicles, including one mounted with an anti-aircraft canon, and motorbikes.
Away from weeks of protest strikes gripping France, Macron’s personal chef had travelled with him to cook dinner for around 1,000 troops at the military base in Port-Bouet, near Abidjan’s airport.
“I hope we can give new depth, new commitments, a new force to this operation and win a fight that is key to the stability and security of the Sahel,” the French leader, who turned 42 on Saturday, told the troops.
“We will keep up the fight against jihadist terrorists. We will continue to do so with our African partners and with our European and international partners,” he said. “Because if we let the threat flourish, it will impact us too.”
On Sunday, Macron will pay a flying visit for talks with President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, where jihadist attacks are frequent.