PARIS (AP) — The French Defense Ministry on Tuesday categorically rejected that its forces in Mali attacked and killed civilians attending a village wedding fete in January, as a U.N. investigation has concluded.
The ministry took issue with the report’s methodology, notably saying that it relies on local witnesses who are not identified and fails to make clear the conditions under which their testimony was taken.
“On the contrary, this strike followed a process of robust targeting,” the ministry said.
The Jan. 3 strike in the region of Bounti killed at least 20 people, and was immediately followed by claims that French forces in Mali took out a wedding party, which France quickly denied. French authorities said at the time that “several dozen” extremists were killed.
The conflicting accounts led to an investigation by the MINUSMA, the U.N. mission in Mali, the results of which were obtained Tuesday by the French press. The report concluded that French aircraft struck a wedding party of about 100 people, including five armed people, suspected members of an al Qaida-linked group, according to the French press.
Shortly after the strike, witnesses gave divergent accounts to The Associated Press, with some claiming a helicopter carried out strikes and others referring to several strikes.
France denied a helicopter was engaged in the operation or that a wedding party was targeted.
“Some witnesses therefore affirmed they saw a helicopter when neither Malian forces nor (France’s) had engaged helicopters in this zone on that day,” the ministry statement said. “Others talked of an airplane flying at a low altitude when the aircraft that took part in the strike were at several kilometers of altitude.”
“The Defense Ministry cannot consider that this report brings any proof whatsoever contradicting the facts described by the French armed forces,” the statement said.
It insisted that international humanitarian law governing armed conflicts was strictly observed during the strike.
France’s Operation Barkhane, with some 5,000 troops, is fighting Islamist extremists in Africa’s Sahel region. France first intervened in Mali in 2013 to stop jihadis from advancing toward Bamako, the capital, after they took control of several northern towns.