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France holds ceremony to mourn 13 soldiers killed fighting in Mali

Thousands gather in Paris to mourn 13 French soldiers killed fighting Islamists in Mali as Emmanuel Macron bestows them with France’s highest honour

  • 13 French soldiers died when two helicopters collided in Mali a week ago while chasing down jihadist rebels 
  • Thousands of people attended a national ceremony to mark the deaths, which was led by Emmanuel Macron 
  • Former French Presidents Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy also attended the ceremony in Paris
  • France has 4,500 troops in Mali, fighting seven-year battle against Islamists that has flared in recent months

Thousands of people including Emmanuel Macron, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy gathered in Paris on Monday to honour 13 French soldiers killed while fighting jihadist insurgents in Mali. 

A motorcade containing the soldiers’ remains crossed the Alexandre III bridge to the Invalides military hospital and museum, before the coffins were draped with French flags and displayed outside the building.

Macron inspected the coffins before bestowing each soldier with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour. 

The soldiers died when two helicopters collided last Monday while pursuing jihadists in northern Mali where militant violence has soared in recent months.

It was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France’s 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.

Thousands gathered in central Paris on Monday to mourn 13 French soldiers killed when two helicopters collided while chasing Islamist rebels in northern Mali a week ago

The helicopter crash marked the single-largest loss of life in the French military for four decades, and prompted an outpouring of sympathy and questions over France’s mission in west Africa

France has around 4,500 troops in Mali, a former colony, where it is helping to fight a seven-year insurgency against the government by Islamist rebel groups

The flag-draped coffins of those killed were laid out in front of the Invalides monument in Paris, watched from the courtyard and balcony my members of the armed forces

President Emmanuel Macron led the commemorations by bestowing the Legion d’Honneur on the fallen soldiers

Gardes Republicains and French navy soldiers march in formation on their way to the ceremony at the Invalides monument

Margot Louvet, 23, came from Gap in southeast France for the procession, wearing a T-shirt with the official portrait of one of the soldiers killed, her friend Antoine Serre, 22.

‘He was a pearl, the kindest and most generous,’ she told AFP. ‘Being here is a way to mourn him, and realise that he won’t be coming back.’

President Emmanuel Macron lead the commemoration on Monday afternoon, bestowing the Legion d’Honneur on the fallen soldiers.

Some 2,500 people were expected to attend, with the ceremony broadcast on a big screen outside the Invalides.

‘It’s an honour to be here,’ Emmanuelle Pujol, 54, said on the Alexandre III bridge. ‘It’s important that people be here to support their comrades and the families.’ 

The French forces in Mali are tasked with training local security forces to take on the jihadists, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.

Forty-one French soldiers have now died in the Sahel over the past six years.

The intervention began in 2013, when insurgents swept into Mali’s north and rapidly advanced before being pushed back.

But despite France’s presence the jihadists have regrouped to carry out deadly attacks and violence has spread to neighbouring countries.

Macron said the government would begin a thorough review of Barkhane in the wake of the helicopter accident, vowing that ‘all options are on the table’.

Former French Presidents Francois Hollande (left) and Nicolas Sarkozy (right) were among officials attending the ceremony

Coffins of the dead soldiers are displayed at the Invalides monument alongside their photos and medals

Military officials salute during a national ceremony to honour 13 soldiers killed in a helicopter collision in the largest single-day loss of life in the French military for four decades

Legionnaires walk prior to a ceremony at the Invalides monument in Paris on December 2 to pay tribute to 13 French soldiers who died in a helicopter collision in Mali

Pallbearers carry the coffins of the French soldiers who died in a helicopter collision in Mali during a tribute ceremony at the Invalides monument in Paris

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, also attended the ceremony in Paris on Monday

French President Emmanuel Macron reviews the troops during a ceremony for the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali

He also reiterated his call for EU allies to step up their participation in the West Africa operation after years of failing to secure significant support.

Only Britain has contributed helicopters and security personnel, while the US provides intelligence on jihadist movements across an area the size of Western Europe.

So far, only the far-left France Unbowed party has openly called for the Barkhane troops to be brought home.

An Ifop poll for the Lettre de l’Expansion newsletter, published Monday, showed that 58 percent of respondents approve the Sahel operation, a level hardly changed from a previous poll in March 2013. 

Controversy flared over the weekend after the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons online associating the 13 soldiers’ deaths with the army’s recent recruitment campaign.

In one drawing, Macron stands before a coffin in front of the slogan: ‘I joined the ranks to stand out from the crowd.’

The French army’s chief of staff, General Thierry Burkhard, expressed his ‘indignation’ at the cartoons, saying in an open letter they sullied the period of mourning for the bereaved families.

French Chasseurs Alpins, legionnaires, and garde republicains prepare prior a ceremony at the Invalides monument in Paris

Soldiers and citizens pay tribute as hearses with the coffins of thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali last week

Sporadic rounds of applause broke out among citizens who turned out to watch a motorcade of 13 hearses carrying the dead soldiers to the Invalides monument

The hearses with the coffins of late thirteen French soldiers killed in Mali are seen during a funeral convoy before a ceremony at the Hotel National des Invalides in Paris

The magazine’s editor Laurent ‘Riss’ Sourisseau defended on Sunday the magazine’s ‘satirical spirit’, while acknowledging the importance of the work of the French army and the soldiers’ sacrifice.

‘We know that their mission is difficult and that they are dealing with merciless enemies,’ he wrote in a response to Burkhard, seen by AFP.

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will also attend the ceremony, as he tries to defuse growing hostility at home to French and other foreign forces helping to fight Islamic militants.

Two Malian gendarmes were shot dead Sunday in the eastern town of Menaka, a local official said.

Keita on Saturday urged Malians not to ‘bite the hands of those who give us theirs today’.

Since January, more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in jihadist violence in Mali and Burkina Faso, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five countries, the UN said this month.

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