BAMAKO (Reuters) - A German military helicopter assigned to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali crashed in the West African nation's desert north on Wednesday, killing the two crew members, the German military said.
The Tiger helicopter crashed around midday about 70 km (45 miles) north of Gao, burning out completely with no survivors. The crash was reported by a second helicopter following in the mission.
"We have now certainty that two soldiers have given their lives in the service of our country," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference. The Germans were the first killed in combat since 2013 in Afghanistan, a military spokesman said.
Germany increased its commitment to the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission this year with the deployment of eight attack and transport helicopters and 350 additional soldiers to Mali where fighters with links to al Qaeda regularly target Malian soldiers and U.N. troops.
A German military officer in Berlin said there was no indication the helicopter had been downed by an attack.
"The reason for the crash is still completely open. There is no evidence at this point of any outside factors," Vice Admiral Joachim Ruehle, deputy inspector general of the armed forces, told reporters.
German military investigators will head to the scene on Thursday to search for the helicopter’s flight data recorder, he said.
All routine flights by other Tiger helicopters will be suspended indefinitely, he said, and only flights deemed necessary for "life and limb" will be conducted.
Germany now has around 1,000 troops serving in Mali as part of MINUSMA and a separate European Union mission.
Helicopters are seen as key to MINUSMA’s mission in northern Mali where they help monitor the position of armed groups that are officially signatories to a U.N.-led peace process.
A Dutch helicopter crashed in 2015 and there is speculation about whether extreme heat and dust contributed to accidents. The mission has struggled to replace seven Dutch helicopters that were withdrawn this year.
The crash comes at a politically sensitive time in Germany with just weeks to go to a national election in which Chancellor Angela Merkel is seeking a fourth term.
Merkel's Social Democratic challengers have raised questions about increasing military spending to reach a NATO target of 2 percent of economic output, and blocked plans for leasing an armed drone to support troops, for instance in Mali.
Four years after a French-led military intervention drove Islamist fighters from cities and towns they seized in 2012, northern Mali remains racked by violence, and attacks have made MINUSMA the world's deadliest U.N. peacekeeping mission.
(Reporting by Yvonne Bell, Souleymane Ag Anara and Emma Farge,; and Andrea Shalal in Berlin; Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)