Anatomy of a Crash-Site Investigation

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PARIS -- French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian detailed his agency's role in securing the site in northern Mali near Gao, where Air Algerie Flight 5017 crashed early on the morning of July 24.

In a speech Friday Le Drian said more than 200 forces from France, Mali and the Netherlands had been deployed to the site along with military assets used to locate the wreckage and begin recovery efforts.

His comments stand in stark contrast to the hampered crash-site investigation in eastern Ukraine, where a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was allegedly shot down last week.

Le Drian said that after learning of the crash Thursday morning, France scrambled two French Mirage 2000-D combat jets stationed at a French air base near Niamey, Nigeria, to search for the downed plane. One of the nation's new U.S.-built MQ-9 Reaper drones was also deployed from the base.

“Before midnight it was flying over the crash site,” he said.

Despite unfavorable weather, two French helicopters – one Tiger attack helicopter and a French Cougar transport bird – lift off from Gao, delivering a small team to the crash site under a “black, moonless night.”

Two Dutch helicopters - likely Chinooks based in Mali as part of the Netherlands' support for the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) mission there -- were also deployed, with Spain also offering to mobilize assets based at Dakar and Koulikouro in southern Mali.

In all, Le Drian said 120 French soldiers were deployed to the scene, along with 60 Malian and 40 Dutch peacekeepers supporting the U.N. Mission. Le Drian said they will prepare for the arrival of civil aviation investigation teams slated to arrive tomorrow. In addition, he said forces based in the small town of Gossi near the crash site would set up an advanced logistics base and a small command post.

About 1,600 French forces are currently on Malian soil as part of Operation Serval, a French-led intervention against Islamic rebels in Mali initiated in January last year.

In his speech, Le Drian said the crash site is not in a conflict zone, though “the region of Gao is known to be an insecure area, due to the presence of some terrorist groups; we take all measures to ensure the safety of our men and operations.”

In July France unveiled plans to expand its military presence in the region under Operation Burkhane, a mobilization that will span five countries in the Sahel region of North Africa beginning in August. The mission's main base is in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad, with forces to be stationed in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

“Forces of Operation Barkhane in Mali, and in particular Gao, have been mobilized from the start at the request of the President of the Republic,” Le Drian said. “They will remain as necessary to allow light to be shed on this tragedy that has hit us hard.”

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