Unexplained deadly airstrike at Mali wedding raises questions over French involvement

·2 min read
A French armoured vehicle drives by Mount Hombori in Mali in 2019 - DAPHNE BENOIT /AFP
A French armoured vehicle drives by Mount Hombori in Mali in 2019 - DAPHNE BENOIT /AFP

At least 20 people, including children, were killed in airstrikes on a wedding in central Mali over the weekend, according to local villagers, sparking confusion over whether the deaths could have been caused by French forces fighting Islamist groups in West Africa's Sahel region.

On Tuesday, the French army told AFP it had killed a gathering of dozens of jihadists in the area of Hombori, central Mali, with fighter jets on Sunday as part of an ongoing campaign against jihadists in the Sahel region.

But several villagers and a local group said 20 people, including children, died on the same day when a helicopter strike hit a wedding ceremony in Bounty, a few kilometers west of Hombori.

"An airstrike claimed the lives of around twenty civilians in the village of Bounty. These civilians were celebrating their children's weddings," an association representing the Fulani ethnic group in Mali, Tabital Pulaaku, said on Facebook on Monday.

It is unclear whether the strikes described by villagers and the French army are the same. The French army denies they killed any civilians.

"There can't be any doubts or ambiguity, there was no wedding," a French military source familiar with the operation told AFP. "This was a strike that was carried out after a particularly strict, multi-party process on a fully identified armed terrorist group, after collating information, intentions, posture, in a studied area."

Witnesses said the helicopter opened fire on a crowd gathered for a wedding. Dozens of injured were sent to hospitals across the region.

"We were surprised by the intensity of the strike," Mady Dicko, a villager, told AFP. "The helicopter was flying very low."

One man who was injured in the wedding strike told the Associated Press that Islamist extremists had approached a group gathered for a wedding and demanded that men attend separately 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 center in Douentza.

France has deployed thousands of soldiers to Mali and surrounding countries as part of Operation Barkhane, which has killed dozens of Islamist fighters in the Sahel region.

Last week saw five French soldiers die in bomb attacks in Mali, making it one of the deadliest since France first intervened in the region in 2013.

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