By Angelos Anastasiou
FRENCH President Francois Hollande stopped off in Cyprus on his way to visit the 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.
On his way to the French navy vessel, Hollande arrived at Larnaca airport under heavy security and boarded a helicopter that took him to the aircraft carrier where he stayed for two hours, giving a speech and meeting the troops.
“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 French President returned to the island at 7.25 pm, and had a 35-minute meeting with President Nicos Anastasiades at the VIP hall at the old Larnaca airport.
The meeting was attended by the Cypriot Foreign and Defence ministers, Ioannis Kasoulides and Christoforos Fokaides, and French Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Neither leader made remarks after the meeting, with Hollande boarding a private jet for the return trip to Paris.
According to a post on his Twitter account, President Anastasiades wrote that it was “good to welcome” the French President to Larnaca. He added they had a “productive talk, discussed the Cyprus problem and regional issues.”
The French President’s visit marks the fourth top-level official from a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council to Cyprus over the last month, following UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond mid-November, and the top diplomats from Russia and the United States, Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry, earlier this week. The fifth, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, is scheduled to arrive on December 21.
According to a Reuters report on Friday, French military aircraft have flown reconnaissance and intelligence missions over Libya, including areas controlled by Islamic State, and more are planned, a presidential document showed.
According to the press dossier provided on Friday ahead of Hollande’s visit to the Charles de Gaulle carrier, two missions were flown on November 20 and 21 around the towns of Sirte and Tobruk.
French warplanes have been bombing Islamic State in Iraq for more than a year, and in Syria since September. France stepped up its bombing in Syria after the attacks by Islamic State (IS) in Paris on November 13 that killed 130 people.
The French government had not previously acknowledged carrying out operations over IS zones in Libya. Sirte is controlled by the group.
“Other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights are also planned,” the document said.
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 the Paris attacks.
The two-hour visit to the aircraft carrier 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, the Reuters report said.
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, focusing 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 refueling ships as well as fighter jets and surveillance aircraft.