(Adds comment by France’s army command)
BAMAKO, Jan 7 (Reuters) – Mali’s government and the French army on Thursday denied allegations that a French air strike killed civilians attending a wedding, insisting that only Islamist militants were hit.
The incident on Sunday in central Mali’s remote Douentza area comes at a moment of rising anti-French sentiment in Mali regarding the former colonial power’s eight-year military intervention.
Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku, an advocacy group for Fulani herders, published a list on Thursday of 19 people it said were killed, including the father of the groom, and seven more it said were wounded in the strike while attending a wedding.
“Those who were killed were civilians,” Hamadoun Dicko, the group’s president, told Reuters. “Whether there were jihadists around at the moment of the raid or not, I don’t know.”
A health worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters on Tuesday that civilians had been mistakenly hit in the strike.
The French army said the targets were Islamist fighters whose identities were confirmed by drone before the attack and subsequent checks after the strike.
“No collateral damage, no sign of a festive gathering or a marriage,” France’s army command said in a statement.
The group of about 40 men was monitored by the REAPER drone for more than an hour and a half before the strike, which was carried out over 1 km (0.6 mile) from the nearest dwellings on the edge of the village of Bounti.
The French military described the site as lightly wooded. No women or children were observed in the zone, it said.
Mali’s Defence Ministry said the strike took place during a joint operation with French forces and killed about 30 militants, according to surveillance images.
“There was no sign of a marriage, women or children,” it said in a statement.
France has more than 5,100 military personnel based in Mali and other former colonies in West Africa to help counter militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.
But its intervention has come at a cost. Five French soldiers were killed in Mali in recent days and Malian citizens have increasingly taken to the streets and social media to voice opposition to France’s military presence. (Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun and Aaron Ross; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexandra Hudson and Peter Cooney)
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