Emmanuel Macron says French ‘colonialism was a grave mistake’

The operation involved teams of commandos and attack helicopters

epa08085949 French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a joint news conference with Ivory Coast's President Ouattara at the Presidential Palace in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 21 December 2019. President Macron is on a three-day official visit to Ivory Coast before visiting Niger. The visit is expected to bolster economic ties with the former colony as well as focus on security issues within the region.  EPA/LEGNAN KOULA
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French President Emmanuel Macron described colonialism as a “grave mistake” while visiting troops in Ivory Coast, a former French colony.

Mr Macron made the comments during an appearance in the main city of Abidjan on Saturday.

He criticised his country’s colonial past during his election campaign and created a storm when he said France’s colonisation of Algeria was “a crime against humanity”.

“The African continent is a young continent. Three-fourths of your country never knew colonialism,” he said in a speech to Ivorians.

He called on African youths to “build a new partnership of friendship with France”.

During the visit to the region, Mr Macron said French forces "neutralised" several dozen extremists in Mali as he pledged to give new force to the battle against 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 extremists 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.

Mr Macron arrived as French and UN troop presence has come under fire from critics questioning the military role of the former colonial power in the region as extremist attacks have been on the rise.

Mr 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 extremists, 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," Mr 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 French military operation against militants in the sub-Sahara region.

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.

Mr Macron arrived in Ivory Coast on Friday to celebrate Christmas with French troops but the extremist insurgency in the region was at the top of his agenda during his 48-hour stay.

The leaders of the G5 Sahel military alliance are due to attend a summit in France on January 13, when Mr Macron said they would clarify the "political and strategic framework" of the operation.

"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," Mr 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."

On Saturday, Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the G5 leaders - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad - would deliver a message demanding a "respectable and respectful" relationship with the former colonial power.

The French armed forces ministry said the Mopti military operation targeted a camp in a densely wooded area where extremists gathered 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 cannon, and motorbikes.

Away from weeks of protest strikes gripping France, Mr Macron's personal chef travelled with him to cook dinner for about 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," Mr Macron said..

"We will keep up the fight against terrorists. We will continue to do so with our African partners and with our European and international partners. Because if we let the threat flourish, it will impact us too."

On Sunday, Mr Macron was due to hold talks with President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger, where attacks are frequent.