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French airstrike in Mali killed 19 civilians, U.N. investigation finds

An aerial image of the area around the village of Bounti in central Mali, where 19 civilians were killed in a French airstrike in January, according to the United Nations. (United Nations mission in Mali/AFP/Getty Images)
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DAKAR, Senegal — At least 19 civilians died after French fighter jets dropped bombs on a January gathering in central Mali, according to a new investigation from the United Nations, raising fresh concerns about an increasingly deadly conflict.

France’s Defense Ministry said its forces had targeted a group of extremists in the West African nation, which has battled an Islamist insurgency for the past eight years. Lengthy surveillance had ruled out the presence of women and children before the attack, officials said in a Tuesday statement.

Witnesses in the village of Bounti have pushed back on that claim, asserting the men — young and elderly — had congregated for a wedding, they told the The Washington Post in the weeks following the airstrike.

The 36-page report released Tuesday by the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, a peacekeeping force known as MINUSMA, supported their testimonies.

Twenty-two people died as a result of the airstrike, the authors found. Three were suspected members of an extremist organization.

“The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are persons protected against attacks under international humanitarian law,” the MINUSMA authors wrote. “This strike raises significant concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities.”

The French Defense Ministry disagreed in a statement Tuesday, saying the targets were known to be militants: “The Ministry of the Armed Forces maintains and reaffirms with force that on January 3, the French armed forces carried out an air strike targeting an armed terrorist group identified as such.”

Fighters linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have overrun huge swaths of Mali — a country twice the size of Texas, with 20 million people — staging regular attacks on military posts and rural communities.

French forces thwarted an insurgent takeover of the nation in 2013, but the militants regrouped and spread across West Africa.

France says it bombed an ‘armed terrorist group.’ Witnesses say it was a wedding.

The European power, which colonized Mali until 1960, has deployed roughly 5,100 troops to the region. Yet the bloodshed has worsened: The nation endured its deadliest year on record in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which counted more than 2,800 casualties.

Extremists have gained influence with insidious tactics, rooting into villages and using civilians as shields, residents in Bounti said. The militants aim to convert people to their way of life with machine guns, death threats and pledges to help impoverished and isolated families the government cannot reach.

“They control our area,” a teacher who witnessed the airstrike told The Post in January. “Some of our young people have joined them. But that does not mean the whole village is jihadists. That does not make us jihadists.”

The Jan. 3 bombing came days after five French soldiers died in Mali.

The French military claimed responsibility for an airstrike near Bounti in the Mopti region, saying that two Mirage 2000 fighter jets had dropped three explosives on “a gathering of armed terrorist group members” in an area known to be dominated by them.

The French armed forces said the attack killed about 30 men — all militants. The Malian government publicly sided with that assessment.

Local groups disagreed, expressing outrage on social media.

That prompted MINUSMA to send a team of investigators to Bounti and other towns where witnesses were known to have scattered. They interviewed 215 people from Jan. 4 to Feb. 20, according to the report.

“MINUSMA is able to confirm the holding of a wedding celebration,” the authors wrote, “which brought together around 100 civilians at the site of the strike, including five armed people.”

The armed guests were suspected members of Katiba Serma, an al-Qaeda affiliate, they added.

The civilian victims were all men, the report found, ages 23 to 71.

It was true that only men had gathered in the field that day, the teacher from Bounti, 46, told The Post in January. (The Post is withholding his name for security reasons.)

Mixed-gender gatherings had been largely banned since the extremists invaded, so women and children had stayed at home. The guests were about to eat grilled mutton and beef when the blasts went off.

“We heard what sounded like a plane and then a loud noise,” the teacher said. “Suddenly there were wounded people everywhere. Body parts everywhere.”

People in Bounti feel vindicated by the U.N. investigation, said Hamadoun Dicko, head of the Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku, a local advocacy group. They condemn the kind of extremism that has shattered calm in Mali.

“There is no perfect army in the world,” Dicko said. “It is high-time for France to admit that it made a mistake.”

Borso Tall contributed to this report.