France’s defence ministry said on Monday it had carried out its first armed drone strike, killing seven extremists in central Mali at the weekend.
Only a small number of countries use armed drones, including China and the United States.
The attack was included in operations in Mali in which 40 alleged terrorists were killed by France. On Saturday on a visit to the neighbouring Ivory Coast, French President Emmanuel Macron said French forces had killed 33 extremists in the central Malian region of Mopti in an operation that started on Friday night.
The drone deployment came one month after two French helicopters collided in Mali, killing 13 soldiers in the deadliest military loss for France in almost four decades.
The drone strike targeted militants in the Ouagadou forest, where a group known as the Macina Liberation Front is active. French commandos “were attacked by a group of terrorists who infiltrated on motorcycles,” the ministry said.
“Working in a difficult environment, in a densely wooded region, this action was made possible by the action of ground troops supported by the air component,” the ministry said.
The French military successfully tested its weaponised Reaper drone for the first time last week.
The use of armed drones has been somewhat sensitive in France, notably because of civilians killed by US drones in Afghanistan and Somalia. Some critics have challenged the legality of such attacks.
France, Mali’s former colonial ruler, led a 2013 military operation to oust extremists from power in northern Mali. But since then, Mali’s military has failed to stem the violence despite support from the French and a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
This year has been particularly deadly for Malian forces, prompting the president to reassign some soldiers in the most remote and vulnerable desert outposts.
Despite the presence of about 4,500 French troops in West and Central Africa, alongside a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
President Emmanuel Macron is due to discuss the future of France’s military mission in Africa’s sub-Sahara region at a meeting in Paris next month with presidents from the countries taking part in the regional G5 Sahel counterterrorism force.