France sends helicopter carrier to support Gaza’s hospitals

By Elizabeth Pineau

PARIS (Reuters) – The French assault vessel Tonnerre was on Thursday heading to the eastern Mediterranean to support hospitals in Gaza that are struggling to cope with the high number of victims of Israeli air strikes as fuel and medical supplies run low.

President Emmanuel Macron said he was sending the helicopter carrier to help Gazans get access to medicines and care.

Israel has been bombarding the Gaza Strip since Hamas’s attack on Israeli communities on Oct. 7, which it says killed some 1,400 people. Gaza’s health ministry says more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in the air strikes and thousands more wounded.

France’s Defence Ministry on Thursday described the 199-metre warship’s role as one of humanitarian support but it was not immediately clear if that meant delivering medical supplies to the Gaza Strip or also treating wounded Palestinians on board.

“The conditions [for providing humanitarian support] have not yet been established. The idea is first to reach the area and then provide as much aid as possible,” a Joint Defence Staff spokesperson said.

The deployment of the Tonnerre (Thunder) came as EU leaders were poised to call for humanitarian corridors into and out of Gaza and for pauses in bombardments to enable access for aid.

Able to carry military helicopters, tanks and amphibious vehicles, the Tonnerre can also serve as a floating hospital with dozens of beds, an x-ray unit and two surgical units, according to the ministry’s website.

The Tonnerre deployed to Corsica in the COVID-19 pandemic to evacuate sick civilians, and has previously been sent to French territories in the Caribbean hit by hurricanes.

Two French frigates are already in the eastern Mediterranean.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Richard Lough and Kevin Liffey)