UN finds French strike in Mali in January killed 19 civilians; France refutes report

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A French air strike killed at least 19 civilians in central Mali in January, according to a UN report released Tuesday, which added that the victims were protected under international law. The French defence ministry issued a statement refuting the findings in the report.

On January 3, French warplanes struck near the remote village of Bounti in circumstances that sparked controversy in the war-torn Sahel state.

Residents of the village said the strike hit a wedding party and killed civilians.

But France’s military rejected the accusation and said it had killed jihadists. It also denied that a wedding had taken place in Bounti that day.

The United Nations mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, subsequently launched an investigation into the affair.

In a report summarising the probe’s findings seen by AFP on Tuesday, the UN said a wedding had in fact taken place and had “gathered about 100 civilians at the site of the strike”.

It added that about five armed people, who are thought to be members of the jihadist group Katiba Serma, attended the celebrations.

The French defence ministry denied Tuesday the findings of the UN investigation. In a statement, the ministry said it “maintains with consistency and reaffirms strongly” that “on January 3, French armed forces carried out an air strike targeting an armed terrorist group identified as such” near the village of Bounti.

The statement added that the ministry had “numerous reservations about the methodology used” to carry out the UN probe.

At least 22 people died in the French strike, of whom 19 were civilians, according to the probe.

“The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are protected persons under international humanitarian law,” the report said.

“This strike raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities,” it added.

The UN report is based on 115 individual interviews and constitutes a rare criticism of the actions of French forces in Mali.

Investigators also conducted group interviews and about 100 telephone interviews.

Mali has been struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency which first broke out in the north of the country in 2012 before spreading to the centre and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

France, the former colonial power, intervened in Mali in 2013 to beat back the jihadists, and now has some 5,100 soldiers deployed across the semi-arid Sahel region.

Central Mali, where the strike on Bounti occurred, is an epicentre of the brutal conflict.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)