2 UN peacekeepers dead in helicopter crash

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Chopper came down due to technical difficulties near Tabankort, south of the city of Gao

NH90 Caiman transport helicopters piloted by German soldiers taking off from Gao airport in Mali.

Bamako: Two UN peacekeepers were killed Wednesday when their helicopter crashed as they were monitoring clashes in northern Mali, their mission said.

UN diplomats confirmed that the attack helicopter and the crew had been supplied by Germany to MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali.

MINUSMA in a statement said the helicopter came down with the two peacekeepers aboard near Tabankort, south of the city of Gao.

“Unfortunately both were killed,” it said, adding that the crash was thought to have been the result of a technical failure.

A UN source in Gao said earlier that “nothing at this stage” would suggest the aircraft “was hit or shot at” as it monitored ongoing fighting in the area.

The United Nations operation, launched in 2013, is considered the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, with dozens of its staff killed over the last four years.

Germany has reinforced its presence in Mali this year, deploying several helicopters and raising the number of Germans serving in MINUSMA to 639 as of June. France has expressed hope its European neighbour will do more in the poor and insecure Sahel region.

The crash comes two years after two Dutch UN peacekeepers died when their Apache attack helicopter crashed in northern Mali.

Northern Mali is the site of frequent clashes between rival armed groups, as well as a haven for extremist activity.

Fighting between the Gatia pro-government group and the CMA former rebel alliance close to the city of Kidal claimed numerous victims on Wednesday, a military source within the UN mission said, separate to the clashes near Gao.

The groups’ ongoing disputes threaten the future of a peace deal they signed in 2015 aimed at curbing northern uprisings and keeping the extremists in check, according to the UN.

‘Supreme sacrifice’

MINUSMA chief Mahamat Saleh Annadif said Wednesday his staff were “devastated by the crash”.

“All MINUSMA personnel and myself salute the supreme sacrifice made by peacekeepers,” he said in a statement posted on the mission’s Facebook page.

In 2012, key cities in Mali’s north fell under the control of extremist groups linked to Al Qaida, who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising.

While the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation, attacks have continued on UN and French forces, civilians and the Malian army.

Former rebels still control the northern city of Kidal, and fighting between groups previously loyal to the Tuareg rebellion and pro-government militia is common, in violation of a ceasefire.

The United Nations has condemned such violations by the combatants, but the state is absent from much of Mali’s northern territory and its terrain is very difficult to traverse.