France launches armed drone campaign in Mali

French forces are poised to begin armed drone operations in Mali, in an effort by Paris to flush out the remaining vestiges of al Qaeda fighters in the west African country. 

French commanders plan to have the first wave of U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drones on station in the skies above Mali by the end of the year, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Thursday. 

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The armed Reapers, built by American defense firm General Atomics, are the first of a planned 12-plane delivery deal reached between Paris and Washington in June. 

Operating out of Niger, "the two [Reapers] that we have bought will be operational by the end of the year in Africa, in the Sahel. That is their main mission," Le Drian told Europe 1 radio, according to Reuters. 

Outfitted with Hellfire missiles, the unmanned aircraft have been tasked with only one mission, to "eliminate all traces of al Qaeda" in the northern part of the country, according to Le Drian. 

"These terrorist groups come and go, regroup and then disperse, so we need to follow them closely," he added. 

"This will be the role of our forces in 2014 ... whose main mission will be counterterrorism," Le Drian said. 

It remains unclear whether the French-led drone campaign will be based out of the Pentagon's drone base in Niger. 

The Pentagon's newest counterterrorism outpost in Niger went operational in March, providing a new launching pad for U.S. officials to carry out surveillance and armed drone strikes against al Qaeda's West African affiliates.

Along with the drone base in Niamey, Niger, U.S. officials also carry out unmanned intelligence and airstrike operations from Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, as well as a clandestine base in Ethiopia and the Seychelles, according to reports at the time. 

France's new drone initiative comes months after Paris ended its military campaign in Mali against members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group's West African cell.

AQIM fighters and local Tuareg rebels had taken power in the northern part of Mali until French forces drove them out of the area with the support of American intelligence and airpower. 

While French commanders have handed their mission over to a joint Africa-United Nations peacekeeping force, Pentagon officials expressed little confidence local forces will be able to keep al Qaeda out of Mali. 

"I have some confidence but ... I wouldn't say that it's high confidence" AQIM will not return to Mali, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Affairs Derek Chollet told Congress in April. 

"I am hopeful, but ... I don't think we're there yet," he told members on the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats subcommittee regarding the Malian army's ability to hold the north against AQIM and other Islamic militant cells on the continent.