Algeria has banned French military planes from entering its airspace, the French army says, as tensions grow over a visa row and critical comments from French President Emmanuel Macron.
“This morning when we filed flight plans for two planes, we learned that the Algerians had stopped flights over their territory by French military planes,” said Colonel Pascal Ianni, a spokesman for the French Army, on Sunday.
French military planes regularly use Algerian airspace to reach the Sahelo-Saharan strip in western Africa where the French troops are deployed purportedly to help a fight against Takfiri terrorists as part of the ongoing seven-years-long Operation Barkhane.
Ianni added that the decision by the Algerian government “does not affect our operations or intelligence missions” carried out in the Sahel.
Former Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika allowed the French military aircraft to use Algeria’s airspace to carry out the anti-insurgent operation in the Sahel. The decision by the Algerian military will have a major impact on the French-led operation and will also slow down French-Algerian military cooperation in the next few weeks.
The development came a day after Algeria’s Foreign Ministry recalled its ambassador from Paris for consultations, citing “inadmissible interference” in domestic affairs of the North African country.
Macron had reportedly told descendants of figures in Algeria's war for independence that the country was ruled by a “political-military system” that had “totally re-written” its history.
“You can see that the Algerian system is tired, it has been weakened by the Hirak,” he added, referring to the pro-democracy movement that ultimately ousted Bouteflika in 2019 after two decades at the helm.
On Thursday, the Algerian government also said that a day earlier, its Foreign Ministry had summoned French Ambassador Francois Gouyette to protest France’s decision made the previous week to sharply reduce the number of visas granted to Algerian nationals.
Algiers at the time denounced the move by Paris as a “unilateral decision of the French government.” The Algerian government also described the visa restriction as an “unfortunate act” that caused “confusion and ambiguity as to its motivation and its scope.”
Macron has ordered the number of Algerian and Moroccan visas to be sharply reduced by 50 percent compared to 2020.
France said it made the decision in response to the Maghreb governments' refusal to accept illegal migrants and asylum seekers sent home by Paris or not doing enough to allow illegal immigrants to return.
The French president reduced more than 31,500 visas for Algerians for the second six months of the year, while the number of visas delivered to Tunisia has also been shrunk by a third.
Immigration has become a contentious issue for the French presidential election scheduled for April 2022, with right-wing and far-right parties challenging Macron’s policies. The incumbent president has not yet said whether he will stand for re-election.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen said she would call a referendum proposing drastic limits on immigration if she is elected president next year. Le Pen said the referendum would propose strict criteria for entering the French territory and for acquiring French nationality.