Chief of the Defence Staff of the French Army General Francois Lecointre arrives at Gao French Army base, after thirteen French soldiers were killed when their helicopters collided at low altitude as they swooped in to support ground forces engaged in combat with Islamist militants, in Gao, Mali November 27, 2019. Etat-major des armees/Handout via REUTERS
PARIS (Reuters) – The French army said on Friday that two of its helicopters that crashed in Mali this week had not been under fire from Islamic State jihadists, contradicting a statement from the militants.
A day earlier, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) said the helicopters collided after one of them retreated under fire from its fighters, but it did not provide any evidence for its claim.
“There has been no gunfire from jihadists on our helicopters,” French army chief of staff François Lecointre told French radio station RFI. The army has said the helicopters had crashed after colliding accidentally during a combat operation.
Lecointre also said France had no intention of withdrawing from Mali but that it needs more support from its allies.
France, the former colonial power in the region, intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out militants who had occupied the north. It still has a 4,500-strong Barkhane force countering insurgencies in the wider region.
On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron – in a joint news conference with NATO General-Secretary Jens Stoltenberg – said that France was acting on everyone’s behalf in the Sahel and also pressed French allies to do more.
Macron has asked his government to look hard at France’s operations in the region and has said “all options are open”.
However, French officials have ruled out France withdrawing its 4,500-strong force from the region for fear that this could lead to even more chaos.
Reporting by Tangi Salaun; Writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Alex Richardson