France is facing growing calls to accept responsibility for an airstrike that killed 19 civilians at a wedding in a village in Mali in January, following the publication of a United Nations report into the attack.
The damning investigation by the UN released last month, its first into French military action, said the airstrike hit Bounti village on 3 January, killing 19 guests at the wedding and three militants.
Groups representing families of the victims, who were all men, survivors of the airstrike, and rights groups have called for military personnel implicated in the strike to be face charges, and condemned the attack – one of a string of incidents in recent years in which innocent civilians have been reported killed in anti-jihadist operations.
A jihadist insurgency has wrought devastation across Mali since 2012, spilling into West Africa’s Sahel region, prompting significant French military support in its former colonies.
Immediately after the attack in Bounti, 370 miles from the capital, Bamako, local groups began to raise fears that civilians, not jihadists, had been killed, said Hamadoune Dicko, the president of the largest Fulani group, Tabital Pulaaku. One of his friends died in the airstrike, he said.
“We knew the majority personally. This is our area and it’s easy to know who was there and whether they were civilians or jihadists,” Dicko said, adding that the UN report had “proved us right”.
“It is important that an independent investigation be carried out, perhaps by the justice system. Whether it is Malian, French or international,” Dicko said, “so that responsibility can be established, that the families of the victims can be compensated and that those responsible for this strike be brought to justice.”
A guest at the wedding, who spoke on condition of anonymity, survived the attack with minor injuries. The region in central Mali was under the control of jihadists, he said. ‘They don’t accept weddings and baptisms. If they had known about it they would have banned it,” he said. “There were no jihadists, we were just celebrating among ourselves.”
The UN report, based on over 400 interviews and witness accounts, accused France of numerous failings, including the obligation to do everything practically possible to verify the targets were indeed military objectives.
Since the report was published, France has repeatedly dismissed it as not credible, claiming 30 people died in the Mali airstrike and that the targets were all jihadists. The UN report may have relied on testimony from terrorist sympathisers, it said, and did not offer any tangible proof.
France’s defence minister, Florence Parly, said last week its operations followed “a rigorous targeting process” and that amid criticism, it “cannot allow the honour of our soldiers to be sullied”.
“There were no women or children among the victims, and these strikes were intended to neutralise terrorist elements,” she said. The attack had targeted a coalition of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida.
On Thursday, Parly addressed the mounting criticism following the UN report, by Malian and French rights groups, including Amnesty International and Oxfam France.
“France’s actions in the Sahel is the subject of a constant information war aimed at weakening our credibility and our legitimacy, even though we are present at the appeal from the Sahelian national authorities,” after a further briefing on the details of the airstrike by the chief of army staff.
The government has dismissed calls for an investigation into the killings, or for it to release drone footage that led to the village being identified as a target, adding to the dismay of groups in Mali.
In an attempt to get France to accept accountability, the families of the victims are considering legal action in French courts.
Fuelling resentment is the lack of criticism from of the military-led transition government, who came to power after a coup last year. Since a statement critical of the strike in its immediate aftermath, officials have largely supported France, on which it relies on to support its own forces. Mali’s authorities have said jihadists were the target of the attack.
Both countries had failed to launch a coordinated investigation, according to Clémence Bectarte, of the International Federation for Human Rights, saying “both French and Malian jurisdictions should have opened an investigation, it was logical”.
News of alleged atrocities by its military have heaped pressure on France, and its prolonged operation in the Sahel. On 26 March, six people were killed in north-eastern Mali in a french drone strike that the military said targeted jihadists. Yet local residents said those who died, including four children under 16, were young hunters.
France’s force of 5,100 troops in the Sahel have struggled to contain highly mobile and coordinated extremist groups in the desert region. Experts say the alleged atrocities have probably deepened anti-French resentment in the country.