France conducted its first airstrikes yesterday against the militant Islamic State group Isil, destroying a logistics depot that it controlled, Iraqi and French officials said.
Rafale fighter jets accompanied by support planes struck the depot in northern Iraq yesterday, and it was "entirely destroyed," President Francois Hollande said. Iraq's military spokesman said four morning airstrikes killed dozens of fighters.
"Other operations will follow in the coming days with the same goal - to weaken this terrorist organisation and come to the aid of the Iraqi authorities," Mr Hollande said. "There are always risks in taking up a responsibility. I reduced the risks to a minimum."
Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military, said four French air strikes hit the town of Zumar, killing dozens of extremist fighters. Zumar and surrounding towns are heavily contested by Islamic State fighters, even though Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have managed to make headway nearby with the support of US air strikes.
With the strikes, France becomes the first foreign country to publicly add military muscle to United States air strikes against the group. Mr Hollande ruled out French troops on the ground.
The first French air strikes in Iraq have added significance: France, one of America's oldest allies, was among the most vocal critics of the decision of US President George W. Bush to conduct military action in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Last year, France was ready to join possible US military action against President Bashar Assad's force in Syria, before US President Barack Obama stopped short. French authorities in recent weeks have suggested that the inaction there has fostered the development of the militants.
The strikes come at a time when polls show Mr Hollande is the most unpopular French president in decades - mainly for his handling of France's economic difficulties. But he has drawn higher marks from the French public in the international arena, including by helping drive al-Qa'ida-linked militants from northern Mali last year and in central African Republic in recent months.
US Central Command said on Thursday the US military has conducted 176 air strikes in Iraq since August 8. On Wednesday, it hit a militant training camp southeast of Mosul and an ammunition stockpile southeast of Baghdad. It has also conducted a number of strikes this week in Iraq's Anbar province, near the strategic Haditha Dam.
The French air strike took place while US General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in France for meetings with his counterpart, General Pierre de Villiers. The two men were visiting an American military cemetery in Normandy, on the English Channel, when the French strike took place.
Genereal Dempsey, who was told of the attack by de Villiers, praised the French action.
"The French were our very first ally and they are there again for us," he told reporters traveling with him in Normandy. "It just reminds me why these relationships really matter."
At a news conference a day earlier, Mr Hollande said France had agreed to "soon" conduct airstrikes requested by Iraq to bolster its fight against the militants who have captured swaths of the country.
He stressed that France wouldn't go beyond air strikes in support of the Iraqi military or Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and wouldn't attack targets in Syria.