A French soldier has sparked outrage after being pictured wearing a grinning skeleton facemask like one featured in the ultra-violent computer game Call of Duty while serving in Mali.
Military authorities have launched an investigation to discover the soldier's identity after he was photographed using the mask, also known as a death's head, to protect himself from dust kicked up by a helicopter.
The trooper is one of an estimated 2,000 French soldiers sent to the west African nation to fight hardline Islamic extremists who seized control last year.
The skeleton mask features prominently in the Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and 3 games where it is worn by the character Ghost an SAS soldier.
Senior French military officer Colonel. Thierry Burkhard said: 'This is unacceptable behavior. This image is not representative of action by France in Mali.'
Photographer Issouf Sanogo from Agence France Press described the moment the picture was taken on a blog.
'A helicopter was coming in to land and churning up tremendous dust clouds. Instinctively, all the soldiers grabbed their scarfs to avoid getting a mouthful of sand,' he wrote.
'I saw the soldier wearing an odd bandana and I took the photo. At the moment I didn’t find it particularly extraordinary or shocking. The soldier wasn’t posing.'
'I don’t know who the soldier is, and I would have trouble recognizing him if I saw him again. I believe, and I hope, that it will be impossible to identify him.'
Although popularised by Call of Duty, pictures of U.S. service personel wearing the masks are common and one was worn by Actor Christin Bale in the 2005 film Harsh Times.
Yesterday Britain's Prince Harry was widely criticised for suggesting he was 'probably quite useful' as a helicopter gunner because he played computer games.
France's operation to assist the Mali army began last week and has already seen several towns recaptured as forces move northwards.
The Islamist fighters have controlled the vast desert stretches of northern Mali, with the weak government clinging to the south, since a military coup in the capital in March last year unleashed chaos.
Security experts have long expressed concern about the weakness of Mali's military and its inability to contribute forcefully in the international intervention against the Islamist extremists, who are well-armed and determined fighters.
When a Tuareg rebellion erupted in northern Mali more than a year ago, Malian soldiers complained that those sent to fight in the harsh desert environment were not given sufficient supplies, including arms and food. The fighting claimed the lives of numerous soldiers.
Then, after the military coup in March 2012, the Malian army gave little to no resistance as the Islamists seized the major cities of northern.
After holding northern Mali for several months, the Islamists went on the offensive again and seized the central Malian town of Diabaly on Jan. 14.
But this time the French military was in Mali and began airstrikes later that evening. Residents say the Islamists fled the town later in the week.
The Malian soldiers would not have been able to recapture the city without French help, according to many residents, including Modibo Sawadogo.
'We are happy about the presence of (foreign) soldiers who can reassure us because without them our military wouldn't be able to return,' he said.
However, Modibo Traore, a Malian army spokesman, asserted that the military is prepared for the challenge and will be aided by forces coming from Mali's neighbors.
'At each retaken city there will be African units who will be supporting the military in securing the city," he said. "At the same time, other soldiers are advancing to recapture other towns."
Military experts say that the Malian army is a weak partner.
The Mali army is not up to the task of holding control of the country's cities on its own. It needs the French and the support of a big African force,' said David Zounmenou, senior researcher for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.
'It's extremely risky to rely on the Malian army. This African-led support mission - that will certainly be the backbone of the military presence that will take over for France. Even then French air support will be needed.'
The Mali army is weak for a number of reasons. After Mali suffered coups in 1968 and 1991, the government wanted to reduce the army's influence and to strengthen democracy, so the defense budget was reduced and its equipment became outdated, said Zounmenou.
The Mali army became filled with people who were friends of the regime and seeking jobs, he said.
'The military coup in March 2012 was by mid-ranking officers, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who destroyed the command structure of the army. Many top officers of the army are still in jail,' said Zounmenou.
'The army is faced with considerable internal problems. It adds up to a situation in which the army is not well-trained or disciplined. It is ill-equipped for the current fight to regain northern Mali from the committed Islamist fighters.'
Yet the Malian army now has the responsibility of holding the centers that have been retaken by the French. In Diabaly, after securing the town, the French military took off just as quickly as they arrived, leaving only the Malians late Monday in a column of at least seven armored vehicles along with journalists.
The Malians are again alone - and in charge of Diabaly. Some residents, though, wonder how safe they, in fact, are.
Mohamed Sanogo said: 'I still don't understand the ease with which the Islamists were able to take my city.'