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France must investigate air strike on Mali civilians, says HRW

The ruins of a building destroyed by French air strikes in Mali on 5 February 2013 [PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images]
The ruins of a building destroyed by French air strikes in Mali on 5 February 2013 [PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded France open an investigation into a Mali air strike that locals say targeted a civilian wedding reception.

A report published by the rights watchdog yesterday said residents claimed the 3 January French air strike had hit a wedding party in the central southern village of Bounti, killing 19 people.

France has rejected the allegations, claiming their 3 January air strikes in an area north of Bounti led to the deaths of 40 adult men, among them 30 Islamist fighters.

"Serious allegations that any civilians were killed in air strikes need to be promptly investigated to determine the legality of the strikes under the laws of war," said Jonathan Pedneault, crisis and conflict researcher at HRW.

Adding: "Malian and French authorities have an obligation under international law to ensure that a credible investigation is conducted thoroughly and impartially."

HRW has urged France to cooperate with investigations opened by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission to Mali (MINUSMA) and Malian defence ministry officials.

The rights watchdog also called on the French government to investigate the strike, including the role within the chain of command itself.

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On 10 January, French Army Minister Florence Parly denied the allegations in an interview with France Inter.

Parly said she had personally verified there was "no wedding, no women, no children" at the site of the air strike, only "men and exclusively men."

The French military said in a statement that the Operation Barkhane force conducted the strikes after a lengthy intelligence operation.

However, the statement admitted the target in question was only identified an hour before it was struck when a drone detected a motorcycle with two individuals joining a larger group.

Three Bounti residents told HRW the targeted event was a wedding that had been planned over a month earlier and that people from other towns and villages had travelled to attend.

The trio each independently told the rights watchdog that male wedding guests had gathered separately from the women because of strict gender segregation rules imposed by jihadists in the area.

"Suddenly, we heard the jet's noise, and everything happened quickly," a 68-year-old Bounti resident was quoted as saying.

Adding: "I heard a powerful detonation, boom, and then another detonation. I lost consciousness for a few minutes and when I woke up, my foot was bleeding because of shrapnel, and all around me were wounded and dead bodies."

One of the residents told HRW he hopes for a "thorough investigation and protection" from being targeted in the future.

HRW said the French government should compensate civilian victims and their relatives, if the strike is found to have been unlawful.

Mali has been plagued by an Islamist insurgency which started in the north of the country in 2012 and later spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

French troops were deployed to the Saharan state in 2013 to help stunt the growth of the jihadists.

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