France’s Hollande visits aircraft carrier off Syrian coast

French President Hollande/Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau
French President Hollande/Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau

PARIS (Reuters) – President Francois Hollande visited France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier off the Syrian coast on Friday, telling military personnel that their mission was to intensify strikes against Islamic State militants.

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“In a few days you will be deployed in a new zone and will take command responsibilities of our allies in the framework of the coalition,” Hollande said in a speech on board the carrier.

“After the cowardly and terrible attacks on our country, I decided to intensify the battle against Daesh … that means intensifying strikes,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The Charles de Gaulle is due to sail through the Suez Canal to the Gulf in the coming days to relieve a United States aircraft carrier in the region. It will remain at sea until March.

The carrier, which has 30 planes and four helicopters on board, was deployed to the eastern Mediterranean just days after Islamic State claimed responsibility for attacks in Paris that killed 130 people on Nov. 13.

The two-hour visit came just two days before the first round of regional elections in which Hollande’s ruling Socialist party is expected to be hammered by the conservatives and far-right parties.

Hollande’s popularity has risen to its highest level in three years, a poll showed on Tuesday, with voters backing his robust handling of the post-attack period.

France was the first country to join US-led air strikes in Iraq. Since the Paris attacks, it has stepped up its aerial bombing campaign of Islamic State in Syria, focussing especially on its stronghold in Raqqa and oil-related targets.

Over the past week, fighter jets have struck more than 20 times in Iraq to support local troop advancements in areas near Baiji, Sinjar and around the city of Ramadi, the French army said on Wednesday.

The carrier holds about 1,900 personnel and is accompanied by an attack submarine, several frigates and refuelling ships as well as fighter jets and surveillance aircraft.

(Reporting by John Irish, Jean-Baptiste Vey and pool reporter; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Tom Heneghan)