A UN investigation into a deadly French air strike in Mali this year has concluded that the vast majority of those killed were civilians attending a wedding, directly contradicting France’s claim that they were all jihadis.
Nineteen civilians were among at least 22 people who died in the strike near the village of Bounti on January 3, according to a report by Minusma, the UN mission in Mali. Three armed men were also killed.
“The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are persons protected against attacks under international humanitarian law,” the report published on Tuesday said.
The strike “raises significant concerns . . . including the obligation to do everything that is practically possible to verify that the targets are indeed military objectives”, it added.
The French defence ministry responded by reiterating its claim that the air attack killed roughly 30 Islamist militants who had been identified using aerial surveillance. It criticised the UN report’s methodology as reliant on “unverifiable local testimony” and “unproven hypotheses”.
It insisted the strike targeted and killed terrorists according to strict rules of engagement framed by international law, emphasising that the report confirmed no woman or child had been hit.
The ministry also stressed how early witness accounts of the incident were contradictory, with some reporting seeing helicopters and low-flying planes despite neither being present in the area that day.
“It is impossible to distinguish credible sources from the false testimony of possible terrorist sympathisers or people under the influence of — or threatened by — jihadist groups,” the ministry said.
The report was released just days after local Malian officials accused France of killing six civilians in an air strike in the Gao region last Thursday. France said it had struck Islamist militants.
The Minusma investigation found that about 100 people were gathered outside Bounti that day for a wedding celebration, including five armed men suspected of being members of Katiba Serma, a militant group.
Investigators interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed photos and videos related to the strike. They recommend “the Malian and French authorities initiate an independent, credible and transparent investigation” into the incident.
Locals told media in Mali soon after the January 3 strike that a wedding party had been hit. The French military said on January 7 that it had struck a group of Islamist militants, a version backed by the Malian government.
Corinne Dufka, west Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter that the report “raises concern of an unlawfully disproportionate attack”.
France, which leads the fight against extremism in its former colonies in Africa’s Sahel, first intervened in Mali in 2013, after jihadist groups captured the country’s north.
France now has 5,100 troops in the region, principally based in Mali, with support from regional armies, US drone surveillance, some EU soldiers and the 13,000-troop UN peacekeeping mission.
But eight years of French presence has done little to quell the violence, which has spread from Mali into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Deaths related to the conflict have risen to the highest level in a decade, according to data compiled by José Luengo-Cabrera, a security analyst.
It shows that 6,256 people, including civilians, soldiers, extremists and ethnic militia members, were killed in the three countries last year, up 30 per cent on 2019. The number of internally displaced people in the three countries has also risen 12-fold over the past three years.