Three Royal Air Force Chinook heavy lift helicopters are now fully operational and are supporting French counter-terrorism operations in Mali, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said.
The Chinooks, supported by around 90 British troops, are providing “niche logistical support to French combat forces conducting counter-terrorism operations as part of Operation Barkhane,” the Thursday, August 16 release said.
Three temporary aircraft hangers have been built, and the Chinooks are able to fly multiple missions per week, the release added.
The U.K. has stressed that British military personnel will not be involved in combat operations.
The first U.K. troops arrived in Mali on June 14, French armed forces spokesman Colonel Patrik Steiger said at the time, adding that they would be deployed in Gao.
The MoD said the deployment is in addition to the U.K.’s support of United Nations, European Union and G5 Sahel Joint Force operations “aimed at preventing extremists from using the ungoverned space in the Sahel to plan and launch attacks on Europe, as well as countering the illegal trade in people, drugs, weapons and wildlife.”
In January, Prime Minister Theresa May promised French President Emmanuel Macron that the U.K. would step up its support for France’s Operation Barkhane, which has been battling jihadist groups across the Sahel region since 2014.
May said that although Britain was preparing to leave the E.U., “this does not mean that the U.K. is leaving Europe,” stressing Britain’s commitment to its cooperation with France in the area of defence.
The U.K. has provided regular use of a C-17 transport plane for France’s operations in the Sahel since 2016.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012, exploiting a Taureg separatist uprising. France began a military intervention the next year that evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment with a mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region.
Earlier this week, the French Armed Forces said it was training Malian Air Force personnel to ‘interact’ with French aircraft.
The French operation is not the only multinational mission in the region.
Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger agreed last year to set up the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops to work alongside French troops as well as peacekeepers deployed to the U.N.’s Minusma stabilization mission in Mali.