French forces have killed 33 militants in Mali near the border with Mauritania, where a group linked to al-Qaeda operates.
The raid, about 150km northwest of Mopti, targeted the same forest area where France wrongly claimed last year it had killed Amadou Koufa, one of the most senior Islamist militants being hunted by French forces in the Sahel.
A spokesman for the French army’s chief of staff declined to say at this stage whether Koufa was the target this time.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced Saturday’s operation in a speech to the French community in Ivory Coast’s main city of Abidjan, describing it as a major success.
“This morning … we were able to neutralise 33 terrorists, take one prisoner and free two Malian gendarmes who had been held hostage,” Macron said, a day after visiting French troops stationed in Ivory Coast.
The operation took place in a different part of Mali to where 13 French soldiers died last month in a helicopter crash while tracking a militant group suspected of being linked to Islamic State.
That was the biggest loss of French troops in a day since an attack in Beirut 36 years ago, and raised questions about the human cost to France of its six-year campaign against Islamist insurgents in West Africa.
In Saturday’s raid, soldiers aboard Tiger attack helicopters used a Reaper drone to guide them to the forest area where Koufa’s group Katiba Macina operates, French army command said.
Koufa is one of the top deputies to Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Mali’s most prominent jihadi group, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
JNIM has repeatedly attacked soldiers and civilians in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso.
The UN, France and the US have poured billions of dollars into stabilising the Sahel, an arid region of West Africa below the Sahara desert, but with little success.
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