The gray color of its hull could almost camouflage it on the murky and polluted waters of Lagos. But in the Gulf of Guinea, the Mistral, a French navy ship which patrols to secure this maritime route, does not go unnoticed.
At the foot of this 199 meter floating behemoth, the fishing canoes appear as tiny as ants. And his siren, which sounds to warn him of his departure from the port, even manages to cut through the din of the Nigerian megacity of 20 million inhabitants, where he made a stopover.
For this difficult maneuver, it is the “pacha”, captain Olivier Roussille, who takes the controls, binoculars in hand and assisted by around fifteen sailors and officers gathered on the bridge.
“With strong currents and a bunch of canoes around, it’s complicated to move this 23,000-ton machine,” one of the officers whispered to the AFP.
Departing from Toulon (south of France) in August, the helicopter carrier Mistral, the second largest French warship after the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, is on a four-month mission in the Gulf of Guinea, along the coast West Africans.
The ship operates as part of the Corymbe mission, which contributes to the maritime security of the Gulf, by ensuring the permanent presence of a French navy vessel since 1990 on this route, one of the most dangerous in the world. And where France has strong economic interests, particularly linked to oil exploitation.
“We work alongside the navies of the Gulf of Guinea countries (…) to fight against piracy, illicit trafficking, including drug trafficking, but also against illegal fishing, which are real scourges”explains Captain Olivier Roussille.
Surveillance at sea, information sharing, operations on the high seas, and exercises with the navies of the countries bordering the Gulf, from Senegal to Angola, are the daily lives of hundreds of soldiers (from the navy, the land armies and air) embarked on this helicopter carrier.
In Lagos, where two AFP journalists embarked for 24 hours at the beginning of October, two exercises were carried out with the Nigerian navy: one consisted of controlling a suspicious ship where illicit gasoline and cocaine were being transported, the other simulated a military operation to free hostages kidnapped at sea by pirates and then brought back to dry land.
Tensions with Niger
The particularity of the Mistral, a so-called “amphibious” military vessel, is that in the event of a crisis it can carry out force projection operations on land or in the air, such as combat helicopters, drones, vehicles, equipment or troops.
So its presence in the Gulf of Guinea, in September in particular, at a time when the coastal countries of West Africa were threatening Niger with military intervention after the coup d’état at the end of July by soldiers in Niamey, widely talked about.
In particular because France supported these ECOWAS countries. And had been intransigent with the military in Niamey, causing a diplomatic crisis between the new leaders and the former colonial power, which had made Niger a pivotal country in its fight against jihadism in the Sahel, after having been pushed out of the Mali and Burkina Faso.
On September 10, the military regime in Niamey accused France of “deploy your forces” in several African countries with a view to a future ” assault “, citing in particular a French military ship which had docked three days earlier in Cotonou, “with personnel and military means on board”, which Paris immediately denied.
If the Mistral did indeed dock in Cotonou at the beginning of September, it was still within the framework of the Corymbe maritime security operation and a conference organized with the Beninese authorities, the captain told AFP.
“This stopover was planned for a long time, for at least a year,” well before the coup in Niger, he said.
Disengagement of troops
“There was quite a bit of noise about our presence (…) but we were only there as part of this operation” And “no equipment or personnel was disembarked during this stopover”he assures.
And as for the possibility for the Mistral to participate in the disengagement of the French forces driven out by Niamey?
“In the same way as all large amphibious vessels we can be used” for an operation of this kind, said Captain Olivier Roussille.
Because the French army must take up a considerable challenge between now and the end of the year: evacuating its equipment from Niger, mainly by land, to Chad, then to Cameroon, to the port of Douala, before their repatriation in France by sea.
The Mistral, which has hangars that can accommodate up to 60 armored vehicles (or 13 tanks), 16 helicopters as well as a troop transport capacity of 400 to 900 soldiers, and already in the area, “may be one of the options”, according to Olivier Roussille.
“Now it’s not planned“, he assures. “ We have not been alerted until now to participate in this operation, and we are continuing our mission.”
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