France said it killed dozens of fighters in a weekend air raid in central Mali, while several villagers and a local group said up to 20 wedding guests were killed by fire from a helicopter.
Villagers in Bounti said a lone helicopter opened fire in broad daylight on Sunday, sowing panic among a crowd gathered for a wedding.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“It was run for your lives,” resident Ahmadou Ghana said.
Another villager, Mady Dicko, added: “We were surprised by the intensity of the strike. The helicopter was flying very low.”
On Sunday, Tabital Pulakuu, an association that promotes the culture of Mali’s Fulani ethnic group, reported an “air strike that claimed the lives of at least 20 civilians” during a wedding.
A French military spokesman, Colonel Frederic Barbry, denied a connection between the raid and the wedding party, saying such a link “does not correspond to information collected prior to the air strike”.
Barbry told The Associated Press news agency the operation followed an intelligence mission of several days that showed a “suspicious gathering of people”.
The French military was able to conclude it was a “terrorist armed group based on individuals’ attitudes, their equipment and other intelligence information”, he said.
There was no immediate comment from the Malian government.
Guillaume Nguefa, the head of the human rights section of the UN mission in Mali, confirmed the incident but did not provide more details.
The village lies in the Mopti region, 600km (373 miles) from the Malian capital Bamako, where armed groups have a significant presence.
The region is the epicentre of a deadly military offensive that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then advanced into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the conflict and hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes.
But the Bounti deaths come during an apparent uptick in bloodshed across the Sahel.
Away from the fighting, the village tragedy will raise pressure on Mali’s interim government, which is dominated by figures with army links.
Army officers toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on August 18 after weeks of protests – sparked in part by his failure to defeat the fighters – before handing over to a caretaker government.