Wedding guests killed in Mali airstrike, local sources say

French forces were in area but say they attacked ‘fully-identified armed terrorist group’

More than 20 people, including children, were killed in airstrikes during a wedding ceremony in a remote desert area of central Mali, according to local sources.

It was not immediately clear who carried out the attacks but the reports emerged as French military sources said its forces in the country had carried out an airstrike in the area on Sunday that killed “dozens of fighters” from Islamist groups.

Witnesses said the attacks appeared to target men on motorbikes in the villages of Bounti and Kikara who were believed to be Islamist militants.

But civilians were caught up in the attack as people gathered for a wedding ceremony on Sunday.

One man who was wounded in the strike told the Associated Press that the extremists had approached a group of civilians who were celebrating a wedding and demanded that the men in attendance separate from the women.

“We were in the process of carrying out the orders when I heard the sound of an airplane and immediately a strike from above. Afterward, I didn’t see anything because I was unconscious,” the man said from a health centre in Douentza, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Other villagers in Bounti said a lone helicopter opened fire in broad daylight, sowing panic among a crowd gathered for a wedding.

“It was ‘run for your lives’,” said Ahmadou Ghana, who said 19 people died, two of whom were his brothers, and several others were seriously wounded.

“We were surprised by the intensity of the strike,” said another villager, Mady Dicko, adding: “The helicopter was flying very low.”

On Sunday, Tabital Pulakuu, an association that promotes the culture of Mali’s Fulani ethnic group, reported an “airstrike that claimed the lives of at least 20 civilians” during a wedding.

Confirmation of reports is difficult in a remote area where many jihadists are thought to operate.

A French military spokesman, Col Frederic Barbry, denied a connection between the strike and a wedding party, saying such a link “does not correspond to information collected prior to the airstrike”.

Barbry told the Associated Press 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.

France has more than 5,100 military personnel based in the region to help counter Islamist militants. But a seven-year intervention has come at a cost as forces struggle to contain jihadists in the open desert.

Offensive aerial operations in Mali are mainly conducted by the Malian military or by the French anti-jihadist force Barkhane.

Bounti lies in the Mopti region, about 370 miles from the Malian capital, Bamako. There are many jihadists operating in the area.

The region is the centre of a deadly Islamist 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 to date and hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes.

But the Bounti deaths come during an apparent increase in bloodshed across the Sahel.

On Saturday in western Niger, jihadists killed 100 civilians in one of the single largest massacres of non-combatants in the history of the insurgency.

France also lost five soldiers to roadside bombs in recent weeks.

Staff and agencies in Bamako

The GuardianTramp

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