Aircraft carrier (illustration)
Aircraft carrier (illustration) Reuters

A French aircraft carrier launched operations in the Gulf on Monday as Paris stepped up its participation in the US-led military campaign against the Islamic State group.  

Seven weeks after extremist attacks killed 17 people in Paris, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian vowed France would face the jihadist threat head-on.

"This threat, jihadist terrorism, wants to reach our citizens, our interests, our values. France's response will be total firmness," Le Drian said as he launched operations aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

Four Rafale fighter jets took off in the morning from the carrier as it sailed about 200 kilometers (120 miles) off the coast north of Bahrain in the direction of Iraq.    

France launched Operation Chammal in support of the US-led coalition against ISIS in September.  

The Charles de Gaulle left its base in Toulon on January 13 for a five-month mission that will include eight weeks in the Gulf working alongside the USS Carl Vinson as part of the coalition launched after IS seized swathes of Syria and Iraq last year.

The French carrier is then to travel to India, where it is due to take part in exercises in mid-April.  

Carrying 12 Rafale and nine Super Etendard fighters, the carrier will significantly increase French air capabilities in the region.

France has nine Rafales in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage fighters in Jordan operating in Iraq, along with a maritime patrol and a refueling aircraft.

The warship's deployment will cut in half the time it takes for planes to reach Iraq for strikes against ISIS from the base in the UAE.

France a key coalition member

French warplanes have carried out about 100 reconnaissance missions and the same number of strike raids in Iraq since mid-September, defense ministry sources said.  

France is, along with Australia, one of the main contributors to the 32-member coalition effort aside from the United States, which is carrying out the bulk of strikes.    

The coalition has carried out more than 2,000 strikes since August, with France and other Western nations conducting operations over Iraq and several Arab nations taking part in strikes over Syria.

The campaign aims to support forces in Iraq and Syria, including rebel fighters and Kurdish forces, fighting ISIS on the ground and to hit infrastructure seized by the jihadist group such as oil facilities.    

"Air support... for our Iraqi and Kurdish allies has helped curb the territorial expansion of (ISIS) and stabilize the front lines. This was our first objective and it has been attained," Le Drian said.

While excluding the deployment of ground combat troops, coalition countries have also sent trainers to work with Iraqi forces. This has proven slightly more controversial, as Iranian-sponsored Shia Islamist militias figure prominently among pro-government forces, and have been accused of carrying out atrocities against Iraqi Sunnis.

US military officials have said they want Iraqi forces to launch an offensive to retake the strategic northern city of Mosul from ISIS in April or May.

But as US and other military chiefs met this week in Kuwait to discuss the next steps in the campaign to defeat ISIS, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter implied a possible ground deployment was on the table, vowing the coalition would "do what it takes" to inflict a "lasting defeat" on the so-called Islamic State.

The Charles de Gaulle strike group also includes an attack submarine, a French anti-aircraft frigate and the HMS Kent, a British anti-submarine frigate. In total some 2,700 sailors are involved in the mission, including 2,000 on the carrier itself.  

It arrived in the Gulf on February 15 after a month of operations in the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The escalated military deployment comes as France toughens its stance against jihadist terrorism domestically as well.

On Monday, French officials say they confiscated the passports of six citizens heading to Syria, most likely to join ISIS - the first such confiscation of its kind.

AFP contributed to this report.