Central Mali deaths: What we know

A United Nations report released on Tuesday said a French air strike in central Mali in January killed 19 civilians, prompting a strong denial from France.

The report comes after residents of the village of Bounti said a strike had targeted them during a wedding party on January 3.

France’s military maintains that it struck jihadists, and has cast doubt on the UN report.

Here’s what we know of the events:

– What happened in Bounti? –

An air strike took place near the village of Bounti on January 3 in war-torn central Malian, in circumstances that weren’t immediately clear.

Several residents told AFP that a wedding party had come under air attack that afternoon.

An association defending the Fulani ethnic group also published the names of 18 people that it said were killed.

On Tuesday, the UN appeared to confirm these accounts.

It said in a report that about 100 male civilians had gathered to celebrate. Local tradition dictates that men and women celebrate separately.

There were five armed men among the revellers, whom the UN said were likely members of the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group Katiba Serma.

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A French strike on the group killed at least 22 people, the UN found, including 19 civilians. The victims were mostly from Bounti and between 23 and 71-years old.

The attack also came after five French soldiers had been killed in Mali between late December and early January.

– What does France say? –

After the attack, social media began to buzz with speculation about a possible French military strike.

But France denied wrongdoing in January and said there had been no wedding.

An air attack killed several dozen jihadists in a planned and targeted operation, the French military said at the time, adding that it had monitored the group for several days.

Mali’s government also supported France’s account of the events.

France’s defence ministry stood by its denial on Tuesday.

It said in a statement that it “maintains with consistency and reaffirms strongly” that an “armed terrorist group” had been identified and attacked.

The ministry also cast doubt on the UN probe’s methodology.

“It contrasts unverifiable local testimonies and unsubstantiated hypotheses with a robust intelligence method used by the French armed forces,” it said.

– How did the UN investigate? –

The UN investigation was conducted by the  human-rights division of its peacekeeping mission to Mali, which is known as MINUSMA.

Investigators conducted 115 individual interviews. They also interviewed about 200 people in groups, and spoke to over 100 people on the phone, including victims and their family members.

UN investigators analysed about 150 publications, including statements, news articles and satellite imagery.

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The probe also met French officials on March 5 and 12 to discuss the affair.

France’s embassy in Mali submitted comments on the investigation’s preliminary findings on March 17.

“This strike raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities,” the final report said.

The UN urged France to investigate, among other things, whether its armed forces had broken international law.

– Why are the facts still disputed? –

There is little by way of first-hand evidence in troubled central Mali.

External verification is extremely difficult in an area battered by jihadist attacks and ethnic violence.

Gaining direct witness testimony is difficult and travel to the area is also hazardous.

Large swathes of Mali lie outside of government control, due to a brutal jihadist conflict which first emerged in 2012 and has since spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

France, the former colonial power, intervened in Mali in 2013 to beat back the jihadists, and now has some 5,100 soldiers deployed across the semi-arid Sahel region.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed in the conflict to date, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

France’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that the UN neither transcribed its interviews nor named interviewees.

“It is therefore impossible to distinguish credible sources from false testimonies of possible terrorist sympathisers,” it said.

The UN said its investigation team took precautions to avoid “manipulation” by its sources.


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