ISIS didn’t down French helicopters in Mali says top general

The militant group has claimed an ambush led to the collision that killed 13 French soldiers

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An ambush by ISIS militants did not cause a collision between two French army helicopters that left 13 soldiers dead in Mali, France's military chief of staff has said.

Gen Francois Lecointre told French radio RFI that no shots were fired at the helicopters.

"It's totally false," Gen Lecointre said after ISIS in the Greater Sahara claimed responsibility in a message via its social media. The militant group has offered no evidence to bolster its claim.

"The truth is that there was a collision during a very complex combat operation," he said. "The French army is telling the truth: we owe it to our soldiers and to the families of our dead colleagues."

The local branch of ISIS said its fighters ambushed a French convoy near Indelimane village, in the Menaka area, and opened fire on one of the helicopters that arrived in support.

"After staggering in flight, it then collided with another helicopter, killing 13 Crusaders," said the militant’s statement, reposted on the SITE intelligence group website.

But Gen Lecointre said there was no attack by the militants that the army was pursuing near the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger.

"There was no withdrawal of an aircraft in the face of fire from the jihadists," he added.

He said the helicopters’ flight data recorders will provide more details, saying the soldiers’ families are owed the truth about what happened.

The National
The National

The accident brought the French death toll in the Sahel region to 41 since Paris intervened against militants in northern Mali in 2013. It was France’s highest single military death toll in nearly four decades.

Since France intervened in Mali, armed groups affiliated with IS, Al Qaeda and others have advanced into southern Mali as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

The crash drew global attention to an emerging front for ISIS-linked groups as ISIS loses strength in Syria and Iraq.

In the wake of the accident, France has called on Nato members to step up support for the operations in the Sahel.

"France is acting in the Sahel on everyone's behalf," an emotional Macron told a news conference with NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg on Thursday.

"Our mission there is important. Nevertheless, the situation we face compels me today to examine all our strategic options."

France, a former colonial power, is the only Western country with a significant military presence waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region south of the Sahara desert. However, other nations, including the US and the UK do have forces in the region.

The French government has faced criticism at home that its troops are bogged down, while critical voices in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability and anti-French sentiment has grown.

Mr Macron wants to incorporate more European allies into operations and to ensure local troops are better trained and equipped.

French officials have also bemoaned the fact peace accords agreed in Mali in 2015 have still not been implemented and that the political will power to implement them is missing.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told lawmakers there was a need for more political action in Mali and a common desire to defeat terrorism, adding that was also the case for neighbouring Burkina Faso.