PARIS – France has officially deployed its first armed drones, three American-built Reapers fitted with laser-guided missiles, in its fight against a jihadi insurrection in Africa’s Sahel region, Defense Minister Florence Parly announced Thursday.
The drones, which have already since 2014 provided surveillance support to the French anti-jihadi Barkhane mission in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, will from now on also be able to strike targets, she said.
France joins a small club of countries, including the United States, Britain and Israel, that use armed, distance-piloted aircraft in combat.
The Reapers will each carry two 250-kg (550-pound) laser-guided bombs, and are entering service after a series of operational tests carried out from the airbase in the Niger capital Niamey.
“Their main missions remain surveillance and intelligence … but these can be extended to strikes,” Parly said.
“This is a new capacity, not a change in doctrine. The rules of engagement of armed drones are exactly the same as for fighter aircraft.”
France’s 4,500-strong Barkhane force is fighting a seven-year-old jihadi revolt in the Sahel that has seen thousands of civilians killed, and hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes.
French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Niger at the weekend to pay homage to 71 soldiers from the West African country who were killed in a jihadi attack this month.
France will also host a summit on January 12 in the southwestern town of Paul on the ongoing conflict, to be attended by the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.