A woman lays flowers under portraits of French soldiers, Alex Morisse, left, Romain Salles de Saint Paul, center, and Nicolas Regard at the town hall of Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France’s defense minister Florence Parly arrived in northern Mali on Wednesday after a helicopter collision killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists, while some in the West African country debated France’s military presence.

The Monday crash on a moonless night led to France’s highest military death toll in nearly four decades. An investigation has begun into the cause. The military has said the helicopters were flying very low while supporting French commandos on the ground near the border with Niger.

Some in Mali in recent weeks have loudly criticized the French military’s presence as the extremist threat grows and spreads into neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced this year, with well over 100 Malian troops killed in the past two months alone.

Some in Mali even questioned whether the helicopter collision was an accident. In the capital, Bamako, resident Mamadou Fofana mused that it could have been a way to calm the protests and revive “compassion” for the country’s former colonizer.

Others disagreed. “France is a serious state with a reputation in the aeronautic world,” said another Bamako resident, Seydou Touré. And Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a statement that “Mali knows what this is costing the country to send its children to the Sahel in defense of this cause, the cause of peace.”

France’s operation in West and Central Africa is its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. The deaths draw new attention to a worrying front in the global fight against extremism, one in which France and local countries have pleaded for more support.

French government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the military operation during Wednesday’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Macron stressed that it aims at “enhancing our own security” and providing “important support” to African countries, Ndiaye said.

A national tribute ceremony will take place Monday at the Invalides monument in Paris.

Residents were bringing flowers, lighting candles and writing condolences notes at the town halls of Gap, Pau, Varces and Saint-Christol, where the soldiers were based.

French centrist senator Jean-Marie Bockel’s son was among those killed. Bockel told French news broadcaster BFM TV that his son, Pierre-Emmanuel Bockel, was on his fourth tour to Mali. He was “proud of his mission because he knew that ... if the French military leaves (Mali) tomorrow, this is chaos.”

Most French politicians have praised France’s military operation in the Sahel as key in the global fight against extremism.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said in a tweet that he is saddened at the news and that the U.S. sends its condolences to France and the families of those who died.

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Corbet reported from Paris.

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A woman looks at portraits of French soldiers, from left, Clement Frison Roche, Julien Carette, Pierre Bockel and Benjamin Gireud at the town hall of Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
This combination image provided Wednesday Nov. 27, 2019 by the French Defense Ministry Communication service (DICOD) shows the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali Tuesday after two helicopters collided. From top left: Valentin Duval, Pierre Bockel, Julien Carette, Romain Chomel de Jarnieu, Benjamin Gireud, Jeremy Leusie, Andrei Jouk. From lower left: Antoine Serre, Romain Salles de Saint Paul, Alexandre Protin, Alex Morisse, Nicolas Megard, and Clement Frisonroche. (DICOD via AP)
People arrive at the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, center, and Frans Timmermans, observe a minute of silence for the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali, at the European Parliament Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
This combination image provided Wednesday Nov. 27, 2019 by the French Defense Ministry Communication service (DICOD) shows 7 of the 13 French soldiers, all members of the 5th Regiment of Combat Helicopters of Pau, southern France, killed in Mali Tuesday after two helicopters collided. From left: Alex Morisse, Romain Salles de Saint Paul, Nicolas Megard, Clement Frisonroche, Julien Carette, Pierre Bockel, and Benjamin Gireud. (DICOD via AP)
This combination image provided Wednesday Nov. 27, 2019 by the French Defense Ministry Communication service (DICOD) shows 4 of the 13 French soldiers, all members of the 4th Regiment of Mountain Troops from Gap, French Alps, killed in Mali, Tuesday after two helicopters collided. From left: Romain Chomel de Jarnieu, Valentin Duval, Antoine Serre and Alexandre Protin. (DICOD via AP)
Wreaths of flowers are deposited at the entrance of the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019, on the stone reading
Relatives of the victims arrive at the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
Soldiers guard the entrance to the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
Soldiers discuss at the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
Soldiers walks on at the military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
European Parliament members observe a minute of silence for the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali, at the European Parliament Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
European Parliament members observe a minute of silence for the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali, at the European Parliament Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)
Military base of the 5th Combat Helicopter Regiment near Pau, southwestern France, Wednesday, Nov.27, 2019. Two helicopters collided on a moonless night and killed 13 French soldiers fighting Islamic State group-linked extremists in Mali, France said Tuesday, mourning its highest military death toll in nearly four decades. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)
This combination image provided on Wednesday Nov. 27, 2019 by the French Defense Ministry Communication service (DICOD) shows the 13 French soldiers killed in Mali Tuesday after two helicopters collided. From the top left: Julien Carette, Romain Salles de Saint Paul, Clement Frisonroche, Benjamin Gireud. Second row from left: Nicolas Megard, Romain Chomel de Jarnieu, Pierre Bockel, Alex Morisse. Third row from left: Jeremy Leusie, Alexandre Protin, Antoine Serre, Valentin Duval. Below is Andrei Jouk. (DICOD via AP)