Paris: President Emmanuel Macron on Monday paid tribute to the “sacrifice” of 13 soldiers killed in a helicopter collision while battling militants in Mali, a disaster that has prompted fresh questioning of the costs of France’s six-year campaign in West Africa.
The soldiers died when two helicopters collided last Monday while pursuing militants in northern Mali, where violence has soared in recent months.
It was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades, rekindling doubts about the effectiveness of France’s 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.
Macron placed a Legion d’Honneur medal, France’s highest award, on each coffin of the 13 soldiers, draped in the red, white and blue of the French flag.
“Today we honour not only the duty of those who served France, but their clear and profound acceptance of this duty,” he said at the ceremony attended by the country’s political and military leaders at the Invalides complex in Paris.
“They died while fighting for France, for the protection of the people in the Sahel, for the security of their fellow citizens and for the world’s freedom — for all of us here,” he said.
“I bow before their sacrifice.”
Some 2,500 people, including dozens of comrades from the fallen soldiers’ regiments, attended the commemoration, which was also broadcast on a giant screen outside the Invalides.
Hundreds of people had lined streets earlier as the motorcade bearing the coffins crossed the ornate Alexandre III bridge heading for the Invalides military hospital and museum.
Margot Louvet, 23, came from Gap in southeast France for the procession, wearing a T-shirt with the official portrait of one of the soldiers killed, her friend Antoine Serre, 22.
“Being here is a way to mourn him, and realise that he won’t be coming back,” she said while fighting back tears.
The French forces in Mali are tasked with training local security forces to take on the militants, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.
Forty-one French soldiers have now died in the Sahel since the intervention began in 2013, when insurgents swept into Mali’s north and rapidly advanced before being pushed back. — AFP