A report by a UK-based investigative group says an airstrike by France in Mali early this year killed 19 civilians and was a “complete violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law.”
The report, released by the London-based international law firm Stoke White Investigations on Monday, said that French drones bombed a wedding ceremony in a village in central Mali on January 3, which resulted in the death of at least 19 civilians.
The report contradicted France’s claim that its forces had attacked an armed “terrorist group” affiliated with al-Qaeda in Bounti Village in Mali as part of a military intervention code-named Operation Barkhane in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Citing an investigation by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the report said 22 people had been killed in the attack — 19 civilians and three suspected members of an armed group. Another eight civilians were also injured.
The victims were all men between the ages of 23 and 71, mostly residents of the village.
“The attack is in complete violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law. The French military is under a legal duty to investigate the civilian casualties,” said Khalil Dewan, the author of the report.
“But France has a systematic problem in admitting and identifying casualties and/or injuries as a result of its military actions,” he added.
The report by the investigation team was based on more than 400 interviews and the analysis of more than 150 documents.
“I heard the planes and then ‘Boom! Boom!’ After some time, we returned to the scene and found several people were killed,” a witness who requested anonymity said in the report. “There, I lost my cousins.”
“I attended the wedding... there were groups of people at the wedding party, spread apart a few meters. I was injured by the airstrikes and lost consciousness for a while,” said another witness. “It was only after I was evacuated to Douentza for medical treatment by Doctors without Borders [that] I learnt that there had been an attack on the wedding party.”
The report called for an urgent and independent investigation into the attack, saying, “The French Ministry of Armed Forces must release its legal justification for the attacks on the wedding in Bounti, so that it can be assessed by legal experts.”
The report also urged France to make public any official or unofficial targeted killing policy implemented as part of Operation Barkhane in the Sahel region.
Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that his country would soon withdraw more than 2,000 troops from West Africa’s Sahel region and would begin the process of shutting its bases in northern Mali later this year.
Macron said France would focus over the next six months on ending Barkhane, but he said France would have a military presence in the future, which he claimed would focus on neutralizing extremist operations and strengthening and training local armies.
The French Barkhane force, operating in Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, currently has 5,000 troops in the region.
The Sahel, a semi-arid stretch of land south of the Sahara desert, has been in turmoil since 2012, when a number of armed separatists started targeting the local population in Mali.
In 2013, France, a former colonizer of Africa, sent thousands of soldiers to presumably prevent separatist forces from reaching Mali’s capital, Bamako.
Terrorist groups, linked to al-Qaeda and Daesh, have strengthened their foothold across the Sahel region, nevertheless, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking local ethnic violence, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso.