While villagers say January 3 air assault hit a wedding party, the French military claims it was targeting ‘terrorists’.
A French air attack in central Mali on January 3 killed at least 19 civilians, according to excerpts from a United Nations investigation, due to be released later on Tuesday.
In the assault, French warplanes struck near the remote village of Bounti, in central Mali’s Mopti region, in circumstances that sparked controversy in the Sahel state.
Local residents said the air attack hit a wedding party attended by civilians.
The UN’s findings drew an immediate rebuttal from Paris.
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.
The UN mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, subsequently launched an investigation into the affair.
In a report summarising the probe’s findings, seen by the AFP news agency, the UN said a wedding had in fact taken place and had “gathered about 100 civilians at the site of the strike”.
It said 19 unarmed civilians and three armed men who had been present on the site were killed.
The armed men were believed to belong to the Katiba Serma, an armed group affiliated with al-Qaeda, according to the report.
The findings were based on 115 individual interviews, as well as group interviews and about 100 telephone interviews, and 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,” it said.
“This strike raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities,” it added.
Tuesday’s report followed another disputed French air attack in Mali last week.
Six people were killed in the northeast of the vast nation of 19 million people on March 25.
French forces say the strike targeted armed rebel fighters but local residents have alleged those killed were young hunters.
France refutes report
France 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.
Its statement added that the ministry had “numerous reservations about the methodology used” in the UN investigation.
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.