Dec. 23 (UPI) -- France carried out its first drone strike, killing 33 terrorists in Mali, two days after it announced drone deployment, the French government announced.
The action took place Saturday in a forest in Mali's Mopti region, where French troops are fighting Islamist insurgents. While French forces have used drones since 2014 in Mali to provide surveillance support, it is the first French use of a drone on a target.
"Guided by a Reaper drone, a helicopter assault was carried out at night by dozens of commandos, supported by Tiger helicopters," the French Defense Ministry said in a statement. "Fighting continued until morning, facing terrorist fighters entrenched in hard-to-penetrate woods. The provisional assessment of this operation is of 33 terrorists put out of action, of 4 seized pick-ups including one equipped with an anti-aircraft gun, as well as 4 motorcycles and a large volume of armament including heavy machine guns.
Two Malian police officers, held hostage for several weeks, were released in the battle.
The Reaper drone is built by General Atomics, a U.S. defense contractor. Also known as the MQ-9 or Predator B, it is known as a "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle, capable of reconnaissance as well as delivering a payload of explosives.
On Thursday, French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced that Reapers, with laser-guided missiles, were deployed to conflict areas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
"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," Parly said.
France has 4,500 soldiers supporting African armies in a seven-year fight against extremist groups. They are stationed in west and central Africa -- regions previously under colonial rule -- as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgency deployment that began in 2014. France intervened in Mali in 2013 after jihadist insurgents overran the northern part of the country. Mali's military has recaptured the territory but militants have regrouped and pushed into its central region.