French leader says rushed exit from volatile region in West Africa would be a mistake, as Chad deploys reinforcements.
A French air attack January killed at least 19 civilians at a wedding party in central Mali, United Nations investigators have said, confirming locals’ accounts and contradicting France’s version that only rebel fighters were hit.
The human rights division of the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said on Tuesday it had visited the village of Bounti where the attack took place on January 3, analysed satellite images and interviewed more than 400 people, including at least 115 in face-to-face, individual sessions.
“MINUSMA is able to confirm that a wedding celebration was held that brought together about 100 civilians at the site of the strike,” the report, released on Tuesday said.
It said 19 people, including 16 civilians and three armed men who were attending the wedding, were killed immediately in the air attack, while three more civilians died while being transferred to medical care.
“There were five armed individuals among them [wedding party], presumed members of Katiba Serma,” the MINUSMA report said, referring to an armed group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The findings constitute a rare criticism of the actions of French forces in Mali.
“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.
Local residents had said the air attack hit a wedding party attended by civilians.
Three Bounti residents told Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the men had gathered separately from the women and children due to gender segregation restrictions.
They said that the wedding had been planned over a month earlier and people had come from other towns and villages to attend, said the report by HRW, published in January.
“Suddenly, we heard the jet’s noise, and everything happened quickly,” a 68-year-old man told HRW.
“I heard a powerful detonation, boom, and then another detonation. I lost consciousness for a few minutes and when I woke up, my foot was bleeding because of shrapnel, and all around me were wounded and dead bodies,” he said.
The French military said in the aftermath of the attack that it had killed about 30 rebel fighters identified by aerial surveillance, and denied that a wedding had taken place in Bounti that day. MINUSMA then subsequently launched an investigation into the affair.
Tuesday’s report follows another disputed French air attack in Mali last week.
Local officials in northern Mali accused France’s military last week of killing six civilians in another air raid on March 25. French forces say they targeted armed rebel fighters but local residents have alleged those killed were young hunters.
France on Tuesday denied the UN’s findings.
The defence ministry said it “maintains with consistency and reaffirms strongly” that on January 3, French armed forces carried out an air attack targeting an “armed terrorist group” near the village of Bounti.
It said the raid followed a “robust targeting process”, adding that it had “numerous reservations about the methodology used” in the UN investigation.
“The only concrete sources on which this report is based are local testimonies. They are never transcribed, the identity of the witnesses is never specified, nor the conditions in which the testimonies were gathered,” it said.
“It is therefore impossible to distinguish credible sources from false testimonies by possible terrorist sympathisers or individuals under the influence [including threats] from jihadist groups.”
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said the statement demonstrated that France was standing by its version of events.
“The ministry even questions some of the work that was done in the investigation by MINUSMA … for example the identity of some eyewitnesses who contributed to the report and the way in which it was carried out,” she said.
Mali has been plagued by a conflict that began as a separatist movement in the north of the country in 2012, but devolved into a multitude of armed groups jockeying for control in the central and northern regions.
Fighting has spread to neighbouring countries, including Burkina Faso and Niger, with the deteriorating security situation in the region unleashing a humanitarian crisis.
France, the former colonial power, intervened in Mali in 2013 and now has some 5,100 soldiers deployed across the wider semi-arid Sahel region.