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German defense minister in Mali after helicopter crash

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is in Mali to visit the troops and meet with her French counterpart. It comes after two German pilots died in a crash.

Watch video 01:31

German defense minister attends memorial in Mali

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday visited Bundeswehr troops stationed in Mali, only days after two soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in the conflict-wracked country.

Read: Germany's Bundeswehr mission in Mali

Von der Leyen visited troops at a Bundeswehr base in the eastern city of Gao in order to gather firsthand information about the crash and attend a memorial service for the two dead pilots.

The two pilots were conducting a surveillance flight for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) in the aftermath of violent clashes between armed groups when their Tiger type combat helicopter crashed some 70 kilometers (43 miles) northeast of Gao on Wednesday.

The deaths were the first for the Bundeswehr in Mali, and the first combat casualties in nearly two years.

Von der Leyen told about a hundred troops attending a religious service at Camp Castor airfield that it was a "heavy loss" and she was there to give them support. 

She described the German mission as vital for the "stability of Germany and Europe." 

Tiger type combat helicopter (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/M. Heine)

A German Tiger type combat helicopter similar to the one that crashed.

Read: Mali crash: Military pilots' group cites deficiencies 

Investigation ongoing

The cause of the crash remains unknown, although there is no evidence to suggest that the helicopter was shot down.

Von der Leyen told the troops that it was important to immediately clear up the cause of the crash amid speculation from some quarters that the combat aircraft were not fit for foreign military operations.    

A German Defense Ministry spokesperson reported that aviation experts in Mali had found one of two of the helicopter's flight recorders on Saturday but in a considerably damaged state. It is not yet clear whether information can be extracted from it. The second flight recorder has not been found.

The Bundeswehr is under pressure over the deaths after the army's technician and pilot lobby group IGHT claimed that the Tiger combat helicopters and their crews had been sent to Mali unprepared. 

Thomas Blum, the commander of the helicopter contingent in Mali, described such speculation as "unprofessional" in comments made on Sunday. He defended the training and preparation of his crews and equipment. 

As part of her trip, von der Leyen is also scheduled to meet her French counterpart, Florence Parly, who is on a two-day trip to Chad, Niger and Mali.

German mission in Mali

Around 875 German troops are currently taking part in the 13,000 strong MINUSMA mission aimed at stabilizing the country and supporting a peace agreement between the government and rebels.   

In January, the German parliament approved an increase in the number of German troops that could be deployed to Mali, upping the number to 1,000.

The decision came after the Netherlands pulled its own helicopters out and Germany decided to fill the gap by deploying NH-90 transport helicopters and Tiger type combat helicopters. 

The Bundeswehr contingent also includes transport aircraft, refueling aircraft, anti-personnel tanks, and unmanned drones. The Bundeswehr role in primarily in a support and surveillance capacity.  

In addition to the UN mission, Germany has about 350 soldiers based in the south of the country as part of an EU training mission for the Mali army.

 

Dangerous mission

Mali is considered one of the world's most dangerous UN missions, with more than 120 blue helmets killed in the past four years.

The country descended into a spiral of instability in 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and other groups took advantage of a power vacuum left by a military coup in the capital Bamako to take over northern Mali in a bid for independence.

But the rebellion for Tuareg autonomy was quickly hijacked by Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda aligned groups.

The rebellion was strengthened by a flood of arms and fighters brought on by the instability that followed the international intervention that helped oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.

The jihadi advances led former colonial power France to intervene in January 2013.

France largely pushed back the jihadis but they remain capable of carrying out attacks.

Watch video 02:30

Morning Q&A: Mali copter crash – Kate Brady

Read: EU commits 50 million euros to combat terrorism in West Africa

While the French Mali intervention has ended, about 4,000 French soldiers are part of a larger counterterrorism and anti-smuggling operation in the Sahel region. 

The UN deployed a peacekeeping mission in July 2013 to replace the French mission.

It oversees a June 2015 peace accord signed between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels and other northern rebel groups, but excludes jihadis.

Separately, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are setting up a 5,000 strong combined force to combat smuggling and extremist groups in the Sahel region. 

The force is expected to complement France's Barkhane operation and the MINUSMA mission.

cw/tj (AFP, dpa)

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