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Foreign Legion Joins Anti-Qaeda Force

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Updated January 15, 2013

Members of the French Foreign Legion arrived in Paris for the 1939 Bastille Day parade.

France has dispatched elite soldiers from its fabled Foreign Legion to Mali, amid signs its military intervention to fight al Qaeda militants in the north of the African country could be long and tough.

The legionnaires involved in ground operations in Mali are from the southern French city of Orange, said French military commander in chief Adm. Edouard Guillaud, who declined to disclose their number and precise mission. Orange is home to a Foreign Legion cavalry regiment.

French legionnaires are often assigned delicate, dangerous tasks. The 7,200-strong army formed mainly with foreign—but some French—recruits was created in 1831 to spearhead France's colonial expansion.

The force fought numerous colonial battles, from a failed venture into Mexico, to successful expansions in Indochina, Madagascar and North Africa.

"We'd do what's impossible to fulfill a mission," said retired Lt. Col. Constantin Lianos, who served 35 years in the Foreign Legion.

More recently, Paris called on the Légion Etrangère, as it is called in French, to participate in missions in the civil conflicts in Afghanistan and Ivory Coast.

And France sent about 300 legionnaires to the Central African Republic in December to help protect French citizens as a rebel group advanced on the capital, Bangui, threatening to overthrow the government, said Cmdr. Pierre Ansseau, a Legion spokesman.

The force has been known to turn a blind eye to the darker side of a candidate's past if he meets the Legion's standards. The Legion describes its recruitment policy as "A new chance for a new life."

Applicants undergo rigorous psychological and physical tests to qualify. If accepted, they must commit to serve in the legion for five years. The Legion helps veterans apply for French citizenship but there is no guarantee.

New recruits, who are exclusively men, start with monthly pay of €1,043 ($1,396), with free food and lodging. They get 45 days of annual vacation.

Lt. Col. Lianos, 63 years old, joined the service from Greece and since acquired French citizenship through marriage.

In 1978, he took part in one of the legion's most famed actions, the Kolwezi battle in Congo, then known as Zaire. Flying out of Corsica thousands of miles away, a group of legionnaires was sent to Kinshasa with U.S. assistance. They then parachuted into Kolwezi, a city in a mining area, to successfully free Europeans held hostage by a breakaway movement.

"Our training was so intense that it made the mission sound easy," Mr. Lianos said.

Write to David Gauthier-Villars at Cette adresse email est protégée contre les robots des spammeurs, vous devez activer Javascript pour la voir.

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