A French soldier has died in Mali, the French defence ministry announced on Sunday, the latest loss coming as Paris ponders whether to stop providing military backup to the junta-run West African country.
His death brings to 53 the total number of combat deaths suffered by French forces since they first deployed troops to Mali nine years ago to fight an insurgency by Islamic extremists.
The soldier was killed in a salvo of around a dozen artillery rounds fired Saturday at a military base in Gao in the volatile and poverty-wracked Sahel region, said a defence ministry statement.
Nine others were injured by the rounds, launched five to six kilometres (three to four miles) to the northest in an area known to be used by the Qaeda-linked GSIM Islamist insurgent group, a military spokesman said.
President Emmanuel Macron “pays tribute to the courage of soldiers on duty in the Sahel and expresses his total confidence in them”, said a statement from his office.
“He confirms France’s determination to continue the fight against terrorism in the region, alongside its partners,” it added.
On Sunday, an official of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali said mortar fire hit one of its camps, in Menaka in the north of the country, without causing any casualties.
France has begun drawing down its forces in Mali, but is now questioning its future in the country after diplomatic relations with the country’s military leadership plummeted over the last year.
Paris’s chief complaints are the regime’s refusal to organise early elections to bring in a civilian government, as well as its increasing closeness with Moscow and its relationship with Russian mercenary group Wagner.
The French have accused Mali’s leaders of deploying Wagner mercenaries, which the regime denies.
Analysts say Macron faces a major dilemma as he mulls the future of the “Barkhane” mission in the Sahel region, which sees around 5,000 French soldiers operating from bases in Mali as well as neighbouring countries Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger.
Despite an investment of around $1 billion a year, jihadist groups are seen as growing in strength, undermining public support for the presence of soldiers from the former colonial power in the region.
Four French soldiers were injured on Tuesday in Burkina Faso when their vehicle was hit by a roadside improvised explosive device.