The crew of a French Army Gazelle light helicopter were rescued this month after their airframe suffered a ‘hard landing’ after being engaged by an insurgent PKM medium machine gun in the border region of Mali and Niger. The Gazelle carried its two pilots and an SOF sniper in the rear who was providing surgical fire support for French and local partner forces during Operation Aconit which the French categorised as “an airborne operation against an armed terrorist group”.
Niger’s Minister of National Defense announced; “A major joint military operation called ACONIT involving the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN) and Force Barkhane [as French forces are known as they operate under Operation Barkhane] with the support of U.S. Partners… in the northern border region of Tongo-Tongo…” targeting insurgents of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). The village of Tongo-Tongo has become notorious following the October 2017 ambush of a US Army Special Forces patrol.
During this latest mission, fifteen ISGS jihadists were killed and several taken prisoner. The ISGS group were believed responsible for the May 14 deaths of 28 Nigerien soldiers near Tongo-Tongo. During the mission, the Gazelle was downed by PKM fire in a hostile area. French Army Tiger attack helicopters were swiftly vectored to the scene and the two wounded flight crew were strapped to the exterior of a Tiger and flown to medical facilities in Gao.
The French SOF sniper remained on the ground to destroy the downed Gazelle to deny it from the enemy and was picked up by a Chinook, an airframe not flown by the French and likely provided by a Royal Air Force contingent. The emergency extraction protocol is rarely used and is reminiscent of a similar emergency extraction in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2007 using British Army Apaches. In that mission, at Jugroom Fort, south-west of Garmsir, a pair of Apaches inserted then extracted Royal Marines to recover the body of one of their fallen.