Estonian-French cooperation put to the test in Mali

French and Estonian soldiers in Gao.

PHOTO: Prantsuse armee

As irony would have it, the French army published a social media post on how Estonians have served with them on Operation Barkhane in Mali the day before yesterday.

“The Estonian unit joined the Barkhane forces in Gao in August of 2018. It is made up of around 50 soldiers rotated every four months,” posts on Facebook and Twitter read. “By today, around 150 Estonians soldiers have served on Operation Barkhane with French and other allied troops.”

Estonian and French soldiers in Gao made international news just a few hours later when terrorists armed with a car bomb tried to force their way into the French military base through a gate near Korogoussou airfield at 3.45 p.m. local time.

“It was a complex attack. The attackers used a car-based suicide bomb,” Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Maj. Gen. Martin Herem said at a press conference yesterday. “Effective action by Estonian and French soldiers prevented the terrorists from entering the base, and the vehicle exploded or was detonated near the gate.”

Only terrorists were killed in the attack. Because the amount of explosive used was considerable as was the explosion itself, the number of attackers remained unclear yesterday evening. The press in France reported at least three assailants.

Three was also the initial figure of wounded soldiers reported to the media late the day before yesterday. By the time of Herem’s press conference, the number of Estonian wounded alone had risen to six – three of them remain in the care of doctors, while three have already returned to their unit.

“While wounds are always a severe matter, we can say there are no serious injuries. We are talking about shrapnel wounds and concussions,” the EDF commander said.

“Evacuation is on the table, while it is not a matter of urgency as their rotation is about to end in early August anyway,” Herem added. “The soldiers in question will likely not continue the missions as they will not recover by the end of their rotation.”

Herem said more Estonians were at the scene – an entire shift – but did not want to divulge the exact number. The commander said that it is possible noise-induced hearing loss and other medical problems will be reported at a later time. Asked about psychological help, Herem said the unit was scheduled to meet with a psychologist in five days and that there is no urgent need for psychological aid to the best of his knowledge. The French side has ensured medical aid, including psychological,” he added.

Herem could not say exactly how many French soldiers were wounded in the attack but said the ballpark figure is not much different from Estonia’s. Local civilians who were near the base at the time of the attack were also injured.

Both Herem and Minister of Defense Jüri Luik talked to their French colleagues yesterday. Herem said that the French commander was very happy with the work of French and Estonian soldiers. Herem added that attacks like this often cost dozens of lives. “Our efforts and those of the French were clearly effective enough to largely foil the attack,” he said.

The perpetrator of the attack remained unknown at the time of the EDF commander’s press conference. Local cells of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS are active in the region, with the latter being the stronger one. “To the best of my knowledge, no such attack has been staged against Gao during the time we’ve been there,” Herem said.

ESTPLA-30 information officer lieutenant junior grade Sander Mändoja said that things at the base in Gao are as peaceful as can be after such an attack.

“Both Estonian and French soldiers are professionals trained for operating in such an environment,” Mändoja added. “The attack only damaged one of the base’s entrances, with life in the rest of the base continuing as usual. It is too soon to say whether the attack will affect the planned activities of the Estonian unit.”

Operation Barkhane began in 2014 as an expansion to Operation Serval, launched a year earlier, to four more countries in the Sahel region: Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. Estonian soldiers first arrived in Gao in August of last year. Their task is to defend the base, patrol its surroundings and serve as a rapid response unit. A new Estonian unit will fly to Gao at the beginning of August.

France has lost 17 soldiers in Gao. Recently, on May 10, special forces soldiers Alain Bertoncello and Cedric de Pierrepont were killed when trying to recue two French tourists who had gone on an adventure to a dangerous part of Burkina Faso.