British troops have killed two suspected jihadists, believed to be Islamic State fighters, after coming under fire while on a United Nations mission in Mali.
The clash, the first lethal gun battle by regular forces since 2014, took place as reconnaissance troops hunting safe routes through the country’s barren east from Gao to Menaka spotted two armed men on a motorbike and gave chase in a fleet of open-top Jackal vehicles.
The suspected terrorists crashed and then fled into the bush, carrying a belt-fed machinegun and a Kalashnikov rifle, with the British soldiers pursuing on foot.
“At that point they [the British troops] came under fire from about 10 metres away,” Major Gavin Hudson, the Long Range Reconnaissance Group chief of staff, told The Sun. The attack forced the soldiers to retreat to their vehicles to continue the chase. “It was very close,” Hudson added.
The British convoy came under attack again “with sustained fire” from the fighters’ machinegun at a distance of ten metres. The troops returned fire with a vehicle-mounted GPMG (general purpose machinegun) and a 40mm grenade launcher in a confrontation that lasted less than 20 minutes.
The soldiers, from the Queen’s Dragoon Guards and the Royal Anglian Regiment, are part of what has been termed the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission.
Under UN rules of engagement, appropriate action in self-defence is permitted. The intention during the confrontation, Hudson said, had been to detain the gunmen for questioning. Their bodies were later recovered.
Lieutenant Colonel Will Meddings, the UK commanding officer, said: “Today’s action demonstrates exactly what the UK is bringing to the UN’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission — a long-range force that doesn’t just find those who harm civilians, but acts as well.
“Results like this come from patrolling huge distances, day and night, in places where ISGS [Islamic State in the Greater Sahara] feel they have the freedom to extort and murder, and proving to them that they cannot act with impunity.”
UK forces arrived in Mali earlier this year to help in a worsening insurgency waged by affiliates of both Isis and al-Qaeda. Their main task is gather intelligence in areas of the landlocked west African state that are hard and dangerous to reach, protect civilians and map out where terrorists are hiding as part of a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force.
Senior military officers said the deployment marked the longest and largest desert reconnaissance patrol since the Second World War and the first one into hostile territory since the combat war in Afghanistan ended in October 2014.
Last week French troops began pulling out of their bases in northern Mali in a withdrawal that has poisoned relations with the former French colony and opened the door for Russian mercenaries.
While Paris will continue to provide air support in the fight against extremists, it will close three bases and cut its 5,100 troops by almost half. European allies will take on the role of supporting the Malian military in combat.
The deployment of foreign troops began in 2013 after Islamists seized control of swathes of the north. But the presence of the UN, France and other allies has had limited success and violence has intensified and leaked over borders into Burkina Faso and Niger.
The Sahel, a huge arid band south of the Sahara, has become the new battleground with fundamentalist Islam since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya a decade ago. Efforts to return stability to Mali have been hampered by two military coups in less than a year.