A French airstrike killed at least 19 civilians in central Mali in January, a United Nations report has said, contradicting claims by officials in Paris that the target of the attack was a gathering of armed extremists.
The accusation will further complicate international and local efforts to combat violent Islamist groups in Mali, which have grown in strength in recent years. It is also likely to fuel anti-French sentiment in Mali, a former colony.
The UN investigation was launched after French warplanes struck a target on 3 January near the remote village of Bounti in the unstable central Mopti province.
French officials rejected reports from residents of the village that the strike had hit a wedding party and said “dozens of fighters” from Islamist groups were killed in an intelligence-led operation. However, investigators from the United Nations mission in Mali, known as Minusma, reviewed evidence and interviewed more than 100 people, concluding that the reports of a wedding were accurate.
“The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are protected persons under international humanitarian law,” said the report, which has not yet been published. “This strike raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities.
It also found that 19 civilians had died in the airstrike and three extremists, who had been armed.
Doubts about the nature of the target surfaced immediately after the attack.
One man who was wounded in the airstrike told the Associated Press that a small group of extremists had approached civilians 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.
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.
Days after the attack, a French military spokesman said the operation was based on intelligence that showed a “suspicious gathering of people” that was identified as a “terrorist armed group” based on individuals’ attitudes, their equipment and other intelligence information.
The French ministry of defence issued a strongly worded statement on Tuesday contesting the conclusions of the report, saying that they were based on unverifiable witness testimony and hypotheses without any proof whatsoever.
“On January 3, the French military carried out a strike targeting an armed terrorist group identified as such,” the statement said.
Extremist violence in the Sahel surged after a coalition of Islamists and local separatist tribesmen took control of much of northern Mali in 2012. An eight-year campaign led by French troops, the deployment of hundreds of US special forces, massive aid for local militaries and $1bn-a-year UN peacekeeping operation have been unable to decisively weaken the multiple overlapping insurgencies in the region and security has continued to deteriorate.
Offensive aerial operations in Mali are mainly conducted by the Malian military or by the French force in the country.
Though numbering more than 5,000, the French troops have struggled to contain highly mobile extremist with deep local knowledge and contacts in the arid and open desert. The group identified as a target for the 3 January strike is part of a broader coalition of militants that is affiliated with al-Qaida.
Bounti lies in the Mopti region, about 370 miles from the Malian capital, Bamako.
The conflict in Mali has now spilt over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, aggravating ethnic and other tensions along the way. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died in the fighting to date and hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee their homes.
In October, the EU’s special envoy to the Sahel, Ángel Losada Fernández, described a “perfect storm” of crises in the region. Expert say these feed Islamist militancy.
Recent months have seen an increase in bloodshed across the Sahel. Last week Islamic militants in Niger killed 137 civilians in one of the single largest massacres of non-combatants in many years.
More than 100 had died in a similar incident in January.