13 French soldiers killed in helicopter collision in Mali

Thirteen French soldiers were killed in Mali when their helicopters collided at low altitude as they swooped in at nightfall to support ground forces engaged in combat with Islamist militants.

French military officials said both helicopters were flying very low when they collided

Soldiers stand at the entry of the 5th RHC (Fighter Helicopter Regiment), in which seven of the 13 soldiers killed in Monday's helicopter crash in Mali belong. (Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

Thirteen French soldiers were killed in Mali when their helicopters collided at low altitude as they swooped in at nightfall to support ground forces engaged in combat with Islamist militants.

It was the biggest loss of French troops in a single day since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago when 58 soldiers died.

The ground commandos had been tracking a band of militants moving on pickup trucks and motorbikes. After identifying the group on Monday, the Tiger and Cougar helicopters were sent in to reinforce, along with a combat jet.

The collision occurred at 7:40 p.m. local time, when darkness would have fallen over the area, as the helicopters manoeuvred ahead of engaging with the militants, the French army said.

The Tiger attack-helicopter and multipurpose Cougar hit the ground a short distance apart. There were no survivors.

"The president announces with deep sadness the death of 13 French troops in Mali on the evening of Nov. 25, in an accident between their two helicopters during a combat mission against jihadists," a statement from the president's office said.

French President Emmanuel Macron expressed "deep sadness" after the Monday evening crash. "These 13 heroes had only one goal: protecting us," he tweeted.

French President Emmanuel Macron, seen this November file photo, expressed 'deep sadness' after the Monday evening crash. (Johanna Geron/Pool/Reuters)

"The President of the Republic salutes with the greatest respect the memory of these soldiers," Macron's office said in a statement. "He bows to the grief of their families and their loved ones."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences Tuesday, saying it was with "deep sadness" that he learnt about the "terrible collision."

"Canada joins with the people of France as they mourn the loss of these soldiers," Trudeau said in a statement. 

"Like Canadians in uniform who were deployed in Mali, they served their country bravely, in pursuit of a safer and more peaceful world."

France has a 4,500-strong force countering Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel region, a semi-arid region of western and north-central Africa extending from Senegal eastward to Sudan, where violence by militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the sparely-populated area has proliferated in recent years.

Rather than stabilizing in Mali, security has progressively worsened.

Islamist militants with links to al-Qaeda and ISIS have strengthened their foothold across the arid region, making large swaths of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Two years ago, four U.S. special forces died in a firefight with militants in Niger, an incident which shone a light on Washington's special forces-led counter-terrorism activity in the West African Sahel.

Lawmakers in France's National Assembly will hold a minute's silence later on Tuesday.

In a message of condolence to Macron, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said the French soldiers "died for Mali, they died for the Sahel, they died for freedom."

France bears brunt

Monday's deaths bring the total number of French soldiers killed in the Sahel region since 2013 to at least 38, officials said.

More than 200 soldiers from regional nations and international peacekeepers have been killed since September in Mali alone, with dozens more killed in Burkina Faso.

Soldiers from the French Army in Sahel monitor a rural area in northern Burkina Faso, along the border with Mali and Niger, earlier this month. (Michele Cattani/AFP via Getty Images)

France's hard-left La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party, which has only a small representation in parliament, said it was time to work out an exit from the Sahel region.

"We're have the impression there is no strategy, no exit plan," Bastien Lachaud, a France Insoumise lawmaker who sits in parliament's defence committee said. "The government must say when France will leave Mali."

France maintains troops in the Sahel as part of Barkhane counter-terrorism operations, while some European countries and the United States have provided logistical support, trainers and some special forces.

A separate regional force, the G5 Sahel, made up of soldiers from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, remains perennially underfunded and hobbled by poor co-ordination three years after its launch.

That has left much of the onus on France. Paris is frustrated that it is taking the brunt of ground operations but dismisses the suggestions of some opponents it is stuck in a pointless fight.

Armed forces minister Florence Parly told a parliamentary hearing on Nov. 20 that the French mission was not stuck in the region, but urged European partners to do more to support it.

"Europe is not immune to these security concerns, because if the Islamic State and al-Qaeda branches were to establish themselves in a sustainable way in the Sahel, this would pose a security problem for Europe as a whole," she said.

"I do not think we are bogged down."