France has carried out its first-ever drone strike, during operations in Mali, in which at least seven alleged fighters were killed.
In a statement on Monday, the French military command confirmed the strike took place on Saturday.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
French President Emmanuel Macron announced earlier that French forces had “neutralised” dozens of fighters in operations in the central Malian region of Mopti; in total, at least 40 suspected fighters were killed.
As French commandos were searching the combat zone in Ouagadou forest, 150 kilometres (90 miles) from the town of Mopti, “they were attacked by a group of terrorists on motorbikes,” the military statement said.
A Reaper drone and a French Mirage 2000 patrol opened fire to support the ground troops, it said.
“This is the first operational strike by an armed drone,” the statement said, confirming an earlier report published in the specialist blog Le Mamouth.
The strike came two days after the French army announced it had finished testing the remotely-piloted drones for armed operations.
It has three drones based near Niamey, the capital of Niger.
The operation at the weekend was in an area controlled by the Katiba Macina, an armed group founded by Mopti preacher Amadou Koufa.
Two Malian gendarmes who had been held hostage were freed, and French troops seized a number of armed vehicles, motorbikes and weaponry, “delivering a very heavy blow” to the fighters, according to Monday’s statement.
Airwars, an organisation which monitors civilian casualties from international military action, condemned the strike, saying France had joined “an ever-growing lethal club including the US (2001), Israel and UK (2004), and more recently Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Turkey, Pakistan, UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.”
France previously said it had killed 25 fighters in two operations in the Sahel this month.
Last month, 13 French soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash as they hunted fighters in the north of Mali – the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades.
France has a 4,500-member force which has been fighting armed groups in the fragile, sprawling Sahel since 2013. Forty-one soldiers have died.