2018/08/29 – Estonian infantry platoon ESTPLA-26, participating in French-led Operation Barkhane in the West African country of Mali, commenced their primary task of manning entrances and control posts at the Gao base in the northeast of the country during week ending 26 August. The unit performed the function on three separate occasions as well as carrying out a joint patrol with the French troops, it is reported by the Baltic News Service.
« Being stationed at entrances requires permanent readiness to check and search personnel and vehicles moving in and out of the base and ensuring the protection of the perimeter of the military campus, » said 2nd Lt. Janek Baiduža, head of ESTPLA-26, quoted by spokspersons from Estonia Defence Forces (EDF).
« Local residents working at the military base have got accustomed to the thoroughness and professionalism of the Estonian troops quickly and there have been no major misunderstandings in communicating with one another, » 2nd Lt. Baiduža went on.
»In fact several local residents who at the beginning of the week spoke only French or English with the members of ESTPLA-26 had by the end of the week already happily started greeting the soldiers in Estonian, » he added.
Where is Mali and what are Estonian troops doing there?
The patrol, in concert with the personnel from the French Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère), took the ESTPLA-26 members around the city of Gao, which lies on the Niger River, and its environs in a region characterised by a very hot and dry, south Saharan Sudanian savanna climactic zone. The Estonian troops moved within the city in armoured vehicles and also on foot, and have already received an overview of the local conditions and its urban terrain, of help when planning future patrols in further detail.
The Estonian Parliament (Riigikogu) gave a mandate to the EDF in spring this year to deploy an infantry platoon-sized (typically between a dozen and 50 people) unit to accompany the French led anti-insurgency Operation Barkhane, covering what Is often referred to as ‘G5 Sahel’, namely Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, in addition to Mali. With the exception of Chad, these countries were a constituent part of French West Africa in the colonial era, from the late 19th Century down to 1960 (Chad also fell under French rule but in a different federation, that of French Equatorial Africa).
Operation Barkhane is aimed at supporting the five countries in combatting extremism, illegal migration and human trafficking, mostly by islamist milita groups. It is French-led, with other supporting roles being provided by the UK and Canada, in addition to Estonia. Around a dozen French soldiers have been killed since the operation commenced in August 2014 and around 450 militia from various islamist groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin have also been killed.
The Gao Region is part of Azawad, the northern part of Mali which seceded from the country and was declared indepenent by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) during the Tuareg rebellion of 2012. After the 1st Battle of Gao, the MNLA lost their control of the territory to Islamist militias. Several other battles have taken place in the region during the war, particularly in the city of Gao itself.
ERR / Sahel-Elite Photo by Estonian Troops in Mali