French airstrikes followed by two days of clearance operations on the ground in Niger near the border with Mali killed 15 ‘terrorists’ and recovered 20 motorcycles, the French Army said on Saturday, December 29.
On the night of December 27, the Nigerien Armed Forces and French forces deployed to Operation Barkhane carried out a joint “action of opportunity” against a “armed terrorist groups” south of the Mali-Niger border near Tongo Tongo, the army said in a Facebook post.
A combined air raid of fighters and Tigre helicopters first hit the various insurgent assembly points within a radius of about 15 km.
Nigerien Armed Forces soldiers and French infantry and commandos then seized the positions before conducting a search of the area over the following 48 hours. They were supported by helicopters throughout the operation.
Around 15 militants were “put out of action” and about 20 motorcycles were recovered, along with weapons and ammunition, the army said.
French Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly praised the operation in a tweet as “an example of a successful joint operation in western Niger.”
“The strengthening of the G5 Sahel armies is continuing,” she added, a reference to the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force which consists of troops from Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.
Overnight on December 19, French Mirage 2000 jets struck a column of motorcycles that had crossed the border from Niger to Mali, killing at least five.
Militants use motorbikes to travel inconspicuously on rough roads and tracks through the desert.
In ground operations following that strike, French forces “recovered material that had belonged to U.S. soldiers who had been ambushed in Tongo-Tongo in October 2017,” the French Ministry of the Armed Forces said in a December 27 release.
It is unclear if the two actions are connected.
Four American and five Nigerien troops were killed in the October 4 Tongo Tongo ambush, when scores of jihadists overran their convoy in southwestern Niger, near the Mali border. A Pentagon investigation pointed to training and command issues leading to the loss of life.
Recent French air operations in the Sahel
On October 16, Malian and French forces supported by Tigre helicopters and Mirage 2000 fighter jets destroyed a “terrorist camp” after they were attacked in the Ndaki region of Mali.
Nine days earlier, the French armed forces conducted an air operation near Pama in Burkina Faso involving Gazelle and Tigre helicopters after a Burkina Faso soldier was killed and another injured after a military vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb near Kabonga.
That air operation was the second in Burkina Faso in the space of four days. On October 3, two French Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft struck a convoy of ‘terrorists’ on motorcycles near the Inata gold mine in the northern Soum province.
The recent unrest in Mali began with a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.
The insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Large swathes of the country remain outside government control, despite a 2015 peace accord designed to isolate the Islamists.
The French mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane, which has roughly 4,500 French personnel deployed with a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region. Three RAF Chinook heavy lift helicopters based in Gao have since August supported French troops in Mali, and 50 Estonian soldiers are deployed in Gao in a force-protection capacity.
Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside the United Nations’ Minusma stabilization mission in Mali, which began in 2013, has about 12,000 troops and 1,750 police deployed, and the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel.