Swedish soldiers have been deployed in a new European special forces mission that fights jihadists in Mali, French military sources said on Friday.
“The first operations have been carried out,” French military spokesman Frederic Barbry said of the Swedes, adding that they would stay in Mali until the end of the month.
The Swedish Parliament approved the deployment of up to 150 soldiers to the so-called Takuba working group in June last year, with the reinforcement of up to 100 others. The mandate expires on December 31, 2021.
Supported by three US-made Black Hawk helicopters and a medical unit, the Swedes are stationed in the Liptako region, a volatile zone near Mali’s border with Niger and Burkina Faso.
Several jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) reportedly operate in the area.
The Swedish army, questioned by AFP, confirmed that it “already has personnel in the sector.”
Their arrival is a boost for France, which has 5,100 troops stationed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad as part of its efforts to stabilize the arid and impoverished region.
Paris has called on its European partners to share this burden.
The Swedish contingent will join soldiers from Estonia and the Czech Republic in the French-clad elite force, whose goal is to train Malian soldiers and work with them.
The Swedes will play a supporting role for the whole of Takuba, which currently consists of a French-Estonian unit in Gao and a French-Czech unit in Menaka, said Colonel Barbry.
Sweden is already contributing to a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force that has been deployed in Mali since July 2013 after jihadists seized a large part of the northern country the year before.
Takuba is the latest international initiative for the Sahel led by France, following efforts to create a regional force of African soldiers known as the G5 Sahel.
The G5 Sahel has been dampened by funding and training problems and its top commander has recently expressed concern about the prospect of France reducing its footprint, which would affect the force’s logistics and air force capability.
The other European powers Britain and Germany have both sent troops to join the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping force.