France to use drone attacks in the Sahel

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Niger this week to pay respects to soldiers killed in extremist attack

A photo taken on December 15, 2019 shows a French Reaper drone armed with 2 GBU-12 bombs at Barkhane's military base in Niamey,  / AFP / Daphné BENOIT
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France will use drone attacks in its fight against extremists in Africa's Sahel region, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced on Thursday.

Three US-built Reapers fitted with laser-guided missiles have so far provided only surveillance support to the French Barkhane mission in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2014, but will now also launch attacks, Ms Parly said.

"Their main missions remain surveillance and intelligence but these can be extended to strikes," she said.

France joins a small group of countries, including the US and Britain, that use armed, remotely-piloted aircraft in combat.

The Reapers will each carry two laser-guided missiles and are entering service after tests conducted from an airbase in Niger’s capital, Niamey.

"This is a new capacity, not a change in doctrine," Ms Parly said. "The rules of engagement for armed drones are exactly the same as for fighter aircraft."

France's 4,500-troop Barkhane force is fighting a seven-year extremist revolt in the Sahel that has killed thousands of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Niger at the weekend to pay tribute to 71 soldiers from the West African country who were this month killed in an attack claimed by ISIS.

France will also host a January summit on the continuing conflict, to be attended by the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

"The point is that when you are monitoring an area, if you identify enemies and there is an urgent need to deal with that target, the armed drones will be able to do it," French air force chief of staff Philippe Lavigne told AFP in Niamey on Sunday.

The drones can stay airborne for 20 hours and can operate at altitudes between 7,000 and 13,000 metres.

The French army has five of the drones, with two of them on the mainland for training. It will receive six more next year, equipped with GPS-guided missiles.

The drone fleet is set to increase to 12 in 2025 and 24 by 2030.

The use of armed drones is controversial. The US has been criticised by rights groups for using them in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.