By Staff Reporter
A French legionnaire has been killed in a suicide attack in northern Mali, taking to nine the number of soldiers to have died in the west African country since 2013, the defence ministry said Tuesday.
The fatality comes just days before President Francois Hollande is due to travel to west Africa as France prepares to redeploy some of its troops from Mali to the wider, largely lawless Sahel region to combat extremist violence.
Serbian-born Dejvid Nikolic, 45, who held French nationality, “fell victim to a suicide attack” about 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the town of Gao in Mali’s restive north on Monday, the defence ministry said in a statement.
A file picture taken on January 21, 2013 shows a French Foreign Legion soldier standing guard as groups from various units of the Air Force, Ground Army (Armee de Terre) and the French Foreign Legion prepare to fly out for a military operation in the north of Mali. A soldier of the 1st Engineer Regiment of the French Foreign Legion was killed in northern Mali on July 14, 2014 during a reconnaissance operation, the French presidency said in a statement on July 15. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI
A suicide bomber in a car targeted French troops who were on a security mission in the Al Moustarat region north of Gao, as part of the French-led Serval military offensive that began in January last year with the aim of ridding northern Mali from the grasp of Islamists.
Seven soldiers were injured in the attack and Nikolic died of his wounds on Monday evening, the statement added.
He had been a legionnaire for more than 25 years and served in several hot spots, including Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Nikolic had also worked in Africa, notably in Gabon and Djibouti, where France has military bases. The defence ministry said his current mission was his eighth abroad.
– Crisis not over –
Paris kicked off its so-called Serval offensive in Mali in January 2013 to help Malian soldiers stop Al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from advancing on the capital Bamako from the north of its former colony.
France — which currently has 1,700 soldiers in Mali — had initially planned to end Serval in May and redeploy troops to the Sahel region.
But fresh clashes between rebels and the army in the flashpoint northern town of Kidal forced Paris to delay the pullout, which it finally announced on Sunday.
Serval has largely been deemed a success by the international community despite a resurgence of violence in Mali’s restive north.
But French lawmakers warned last week that the crisis in the country was not over, pointing to ongoing tensions and challenges in passing the baton to another force while a planned UN stabilisation operation in the country is only being slowly deployed.
France is replacing Serval with the broader Operation Barkhane, which aims to fight extremist violence in the Sahel and is being implemented in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
As part of Barkhane, which will be headquartered in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, around 1,200 French troops will remain in northern Mali with the rest deployed to other countries.
Hollande is due to travel to west Africa on Thursday, visiting Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad as the new military mission gets underway.
In a statement on Tuesday, he sent his condolences to Nikolic’s family and loved ones.
“French soldiers… accomplish with courage and efficacy this mission to consolidate Mali’s sovereignty and fight against terrorist groups,” he said.