IN PICTURES: France honours the 13 soldiers killed battling jihadists in Mali

French President Emmanuel Macron lead a national tribute on Monday for 13 soldiers killed while battling jihadist insurgents in Mali.

IN PICTURES: France honours the 13 soldiers killed battling jihadists in Mali

The soldiers died when their helicopters collided last Monday while chasing jihadists in northern Mali where militant violence has soared in recent months.

Their coffins, draped in the red, white and blue of the French flag, were brought home from the French military base at Gao, near the restive border with Burkina Faso and Niger, on Saturday.

The ceremony will be held at the Invalides military hospital and museum in Paris, beginning at 3:00 pm, when Macron will bestow the Legion d'Honneur on the fallen soldiers.

Parisians will also be able to pay their respects as the coffins are brought across the Alexandre III bridge and the ceremony will be broadcast on a giant screen set up outside the Invalides.

The crash was the biggest single-day loss for the French military in nearly four decades and raised fresh questions about the effectiveness of France's 4,500-member Barkhane operation in Mali and four other countries in the Sahel.

They are tasked with training local security forces to take on the jihadista, but so far these remain woefully unprepared despite years of pledges of more international funding and equipment.

Forty-one French soldiers have now died in the Sahel over the past six years.

Macron said the government would begin a thorough review of Barkhane in the wake of the helicopter accident, vowing that “all options are on the table.” 

He also reiterated his call for EU allies to step up their participation in the West Africa operation after years of failing to secure significant support — only Britain has contributed helicopters and security personnel, while the US provides intelligence on jihadist movements across an area the size of Western Europe.

Controversy flared over the weekend after the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons associating the 13 soldiers' deaths with the army's recent recruitment campaign.

In one drawing, Macron stands before a coffin in front of the slogan: “I joined the ranks to stand out from the crowd.”

The French army's chief of staff, General Thierry Burkhard, expressed his “indignation” at the cartoons.

In an open letter to Charlie Hebdo's editor, Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau, he accused the magazine of having sullied the period of mourning for the bereaved families.

Sourisseau defended on Sunday the magazines's “satirical spirit”, while acknowledging the importance of the work of the French army and the soldiers' sacrifice.

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