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French Defence Minister Florence Parly speaks in Paris, on Nov. 26, 2019.

CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images

France’s defence minister Florence Parly arrived in northern Mali on Wednesday after a helicopter collision killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists, while some in the West African country debated France’s military presence.

The Monday crash on a moonless night led to France’s highest military death toll in nearly four decades. An investigation has begun into the cause. The military has said the helicopters were flying very low while supporting French commandos on the ground near the border with Niger.

Some in Mali in recent weeks have loudly criticized the French military’s presence as the extremist threat grows and spreads into neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year, with well over 100 Malian troops killed in the past two months alone.

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Some in Mali even questioned whether the helicopter collision was an accident. In the capital, Bamako, resident Mamadou Fofana mused that it could have been a way to calm the protests and revive “compassion” for the country’s former colonizer.

Others disagreed. “France is a serious state with a reputation in the aeronautic world,” said another Bamako resident, Seydou Toure. And Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a statement that “Mali knows what this is costing the country to send its children to the Sahel in defence of this cause, the cause of peace.”

France’s operation in West and Central Africa is its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. The deaths draw new attention to a worrying front in the global fight against extremism, one in which France and local countries have pleaded for more support.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the military operation during Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Macron stressed that it aims at “enhancing our own security” and providing “important support” to African countries, Ndiaye said.

A national tribute ceremony will take place Monday at the Invalides monument in Paris.

Residents were bringing flowers, lighting candles and writing condolences notes at the town halls of Gap, Pau, Varces and Saint-Christol, where the soldiers were based.

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French centrist senator Jean-Marie Bockel’s son was among those killed. Bockel told French news broadcaster BFM TV that his son, Pierre-Emmanuel Bockel, was on his fourth tour to Mali. He was “proud of his mission because he knew that … if the French military leaves (Mali) tomorrow, this is chaos.”

Most French politicians have praised France’s military operation in the Sahel as key in the global fight against extremism.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said in a tweet that he is saddened at the news and that the U.S. sends its condolences to France and the families of those who died.

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