France’s military said on Friday its troops had returned to the scene of an airstrike in central Mali to confirm that only jihadists had been targeted after villagers claimed a wedding had been hit.
Controversy erupted over the operation after several residents of the remote village of Bounti said that up to 20 people had been killed in an attack on Sunday — an account so different from the French army’s there was speculation of two separate attacks in the area at the same time.
On Friday morning “a land mission made up of Barkhane soldiers went to the scene of the French strike carried out on January 3, north of the village of Bounti”, the military said in a statement.
“The information gathered during this mission is in all respects consistent with the analysis and assessment of the situation produced so far,” the Barkhane statement added.
Several villagers had told AFP that a wedding party in Bounti came under fire on Sunday from a single unidentified helicopter.
A cultural association that promotes Mali’s Fulani ethnic group said that around 20 civilians were killed.
The only armed forces that carry out offensive air operations in Mali are the national military and the Barkhane force.
France has said its operation did not involve a helicopter and on Thursday evening said that the available information “excluded the possibility of collateral damage”.
Mali’s defence ministry supported the French account, saying its information showed that “the neutralised targets were confirmed military objectives”, and that “the observed surroundings did not show any wedding scene”.
The ministry added that an inquiry was being opened “to better understand what happened”.
Independent verification of Sunday’s events is extremely difficult, given the remoteness of the location and danger of travelling there.
Suicide bombing injured six French soldiers
The region is the epicentre 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.
France’s military intervention in the Sahel dates back almost exactly eight years, to January 2013, when it forced the jihadists out of northern Mali.
Meanwhile, six French soldiers were wounded in a suicide bombing attack on Friday in the “three borders” region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, France’s military said.
They were taken to the Gao military hospital and three of them will return to France over the weekend, it added.
It was the latest attack on French troops in Mali after a total of five Barkhane troops were killed by roadside bombs on December 28 and January 2, bringing the mission’s losses to 50.