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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - France has officially deployed its first armed drones in its fight against extremists in Africa's Sahel region, Defence Minister Florence Parly announced on Thursday.
The drones, three American-built Reapers fitted with laser-guided missiles, have provided surveillance support to the French Barkhane mission in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso since 2014 and will now also be able to strike targets, she said.
"Their main missions remain surveillance and intelligence... but these can be extended to strikes," Ms Parly said.
France joins a small club of countries, including the United States and Britain, that use armed, remotely-piloted aircraft in combat.
The Reapers will each carry two laser-guided bombs, and are entering service after a series of operational tests carried out from an airbase Niger’s capital Niamey.
"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," Ms Parly said.
France's 4,500-strong Barkhane force is fighting a seven-year-old extremist revolt in the Sahel that has seen thousands of civilians killed, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee 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 an attack this month claimed by ISIS.
France will also host a summit on the ongoing conflict in January, to be attended by the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
"The point is that when you are monitoring an area, if you identify enemies and there is an urgent need to deal with that target, the armed drone will be able to do it," French air force chief of staff Philippe Lavigne told AFP in Niamey on Sunday.
The drones can stay airborne for 20 hours, and can operate at altitudes between 7,000 and 13,000 metres.
The French army has five of the drones in total, with two of them on the mainland for training. It will receive six more next year, equipped with GPS-guided missiles.
The drone fleet is set to increase to 12 in 2025 and 24 by 2030.
The use of armed drones is controversial.
The United States has been criticised for deploying them in campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
Rights groups say the remotely-piloted weapons dehumanise warfare.
Updated: December 20, 2019 12:42 AM
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