On Monday night, suicide bombers attacked the French military base in Gao, Mali, where Estonian and Malian troops are also serving. Six members of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) were injured and needed medical attention alongside French troops.
"A total of six Estonian servicemembers needed medical attention following the suicide attack, three of whom remain under medical care," Commander of the EDF Maj. Gen. Martin Herem said at a press conference held on Tuesday.
It was previously reported that five Estonian servicemembers had been injured in the attack.
Herem noted that around the same number of French troops were likewise injured, although he declined to provide an exact number. Sustained injuries were not severe, limited to shrapnel or contusions. The hearing of a few men may also have been affected, he added.
According to the commander, the EDF is not planning on sending the injured servicemembers home sooner, as handover to the next planned rotation is scheduled to take place at the beginning of August anyway. "The problem is that they won't be healed by the end of the mission," he added.
Suicide bombers attacked the base with a vehicle containing an improvised explosive device (IED).
The attack took place at the entrance to the French part of the base, The Defence Post reported French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry as saying. The attackers did not manage to enter the base itself.
Barbry likewise confirmed that the troops' injuries were not life-threatening.
A source in Gao had told Nord Sud Journal that Malian troops fired on a vehicle as it tried to drive through a checkpoint located outside the base. The occupants of the vehicle returned fire before the vehicle exploded.
Attack successfully fended off
According to Herem, the fact that neither Estonians nor the French lost a single servicemember in the attack is proof of their professionalism.
"Clearly our and the French's actions were so effective that nobody was killed," he said, adding that such attacks often claim the lives of dozens of people. "These security and safety measures ensured that we did not have any losses."
While it was determined that there were civilians present in the vicinity at the time of the attack, he did not have verified information regarding whether any civilians were injured.
Herem noted that the Gao military base would be under heightened alert and readiness following Monday night's attack, and if necessary, changes would be implemented. "It's not appropriate for me to get smart, but I have no doubt that the Estonian and French units will implement changes if necessary," he added.
In the course of the attack, the perpetrators attempted to approach the gates of the military base in a vehicle allegedly in UN livery, but ended up in a firefight. The gates cannot be accessed directly; in order to reach them, a vehicle must maneuver between several obstacles and barricades.
According to Herem, it also has yet to be determined what caused the large amount of explosives in the vehicle to explode — whether it was the terrorist sitting in the vehicle, whether it was detonated remotely, or whether it was set off as a result of being hit by gunfire.
The commander also said that it hasn't yet been determined who exactly is responsible for the attack, but added that it was likely Daesh (the Islamic State group), and such a serious attack indicates that the guerrillas are bothered by the activity of the French and Estonian units. He noted that this was the most dangerous attack seen at the Gao base since Estonian troops began serving there.
There is no reason to believe that the attack was aimed at any one country, but rather it was aimed at Operation Barkhane itself, Herem said.
The commander also passed along a message from his French counterpart regarding the success of Operation Barkhane. According to Herem, a large number of people in the Gao region are able to live at home thanks to the international operation.
President, prime minister offer support
President Kersti Kaljulaid and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) wished for a speedy recovery to the Estonian troops injured on Monday night. Both the head of state and the head of government stressed the contributions they have made to ensuring the security of Estonia and its allies.
"I wish a speedy recovery to the members of the EDF who were injured in the suicide attack in Mali last night," Kaljulaid wrote on social media. "All of Estonia has its fingers crossed for you, as while you are serving on this mission, you are standing for all of us and our allies!"
"I wish a speedy recovery to our compatriots, and peace of mind to their loved ones," Ratas wrote on social media on Tuesday morning. "I will help with this in any way I can. I met with members of the EDF at the base in Gao last October. I saw how seriously they contribute to the success of the international operation on behalf of the security of Estonia and our region, and how highly Malians and the French value our troops' contributions. I can confirm as much again today."
Following the attack, Ratas said in a press release that this was a reminder of how seriously members of the EDF must be taken who, in the name of peace and stability, participate in international military operations far from home for the sake of Estonian security.
"I wish the Estonian troops injured in Mali a speedy recovery, and peace of mind to all of their loved ones," Ratas said. "French President Emmanuel Macron asked me to pass along the same message to our troops and their loved ones. The Estonian state will do everything it can to help aid the speedy recovery of our troops."
In his statement, the head of government highlighted that Estonia has a clear role and responsibility in the world. "We will support our allies and partners in NATO and the EU on a daily basis," he said.
Defense ministers affirm strength of allied relations
In a phone call on Tuesday morning, Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Isamaa) and French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly discussed the attack in Mali, according to a ministry press release.
"We are proud of the members of the EDF who are defending European security in Mali," Luik said, adding that he wishes the troops a speedy recovery. "It is in our interests to stand against threats together with our allies, understanding one another's needs and strengthening our allied relations."
Parly thanked the Estonian troops for their exemplary service, and wished them a speedy recovery as well. She stressed that the Estonian troops' professional behavior during the attack is exactly what French troops so highly value in their Estonian colleagues.
US Embassy: We reject all acts of terrorism
The U.S. Embassy likewise released a statement in response to the attack.
"The U.S. Embassy in Tallinn is saddened to learn of yesterday's terrorist attacks on Estonian, French and Malian troops serving in Operation Barkhane and Malian civilians at the Gao military camp in Mali," the embassy said in a press release.
"We deeply admire these servicemembers' commitment to eradicating terrorism, and the risks that are attached to this mission," the statement continued. "We share our sympathies with the injured civilians, soldiers, and their families, and stand united with our allies in rejecting all acts of terrorism worldwide."
50 Estonian troops serving in Mali
Operation Barkhane is a French-led anti-insurgent mission in Africa's Sahel region. The operation's objective is to support the governments of the Sahel region countries of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad in their fight against Islamic terrorists, as well as prevent illegal migration and human trafficking. The UK is also supporting the operation with transport helicopters, and Spain with an air force component.
Some 50 members of the EDF are currently serving in Gao, including the infantry platoon ESTPLA-30 and members of a national support element.
In addition to patrols, Estonians serving on the French Army-led Operation Barkhane are tasked with ensuring the security of the base as well as fulfilling rapid response tasks.
Editor: Aili Vahtla