French defence minister arrives in Mali as helicopter crash black boxes found

France’s operation in West and Central Africa involves 4,500 personnel

TOPSHOT - Gap inhabitants and soldiers pay tribute to the fourth soldiers of the city's regiment who died in Mali on November 25, in front of Gap’s city hall, on November 26, 2019. Thirteen French soldiers were killed on November 25 in Mali when two helicopters collided while fighting insurgents in the country's restive north, the heaviest single loss for the French military in nearly four decades.  / AFP / JEFF PACHOUD
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France's Defence Minister, Florence Parly, arrived in northern Mali on Wednesday after a helicopter collision killed 13 French soldiers fighting ISIS-linked extremists.

Monday's crash on a moonless night led to France’s highest military death toll in nearly four decades.

An investigation has begun into the cause. The military said the helicopters were flying very low while supporting French commandos near the border with Niger.

Two black boxes from the helicopters were recovered, a French military spokesman said Wednesday.

"They will be handed over to the relevant authorities to be analysed," Col Frederic Barbry told BFMTV.

Some in Mali in recent weeks have criticised the French military’s presence as the extremist threat grows and spreads into neighbouring countries.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year, with more than 100 Malian troops killed in the past two months.

Some in Mali even questioned whether the collision was an accident.

In the capital, Bamako, resident Mamadou Fofana said that it could have been a way to calm the protests and bring compassion for the country’s former coloniser.

“Mali knows what this is costing the country to send its children to the Sahel in defence of this cause, the cause of peace,” said Mali’s President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

France’s operation in West and Central Africa is its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel.

The deaths draw new attention to a worrying front in the global fight against extremism, one in which France and local countries have pleaded for more support.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the military operation during Wednesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting.

Mr Macron said it was aimed at “enhancing our own security” and providing “important support” to African countries, Ms Ndiaye said.

A national tribute ceremony will take place on Monday at the Invalides monument in Paris.

Residents took flowers, lit candles and wrote notes of condolence at the town halls of Gap, Pau, Varces and Saint-Christol, where the soldiers were based.

French centrist senator Jean-Marie Bockel’s son was among those killed.

Mr Bockel told French news broadcaster BFM TV that his son, Pierre-Emmanuel Bockel, was on his fourth tour to Mali.

He was “proud of his mission because he knew that if the French military leaves tomorrow, this is chaos", his father said.

Most French politicians have praised the country's military operation in the Sahel as crucial to the global fight against extremism.