French defence chief in Mali amid dispute over airstrike

·2 min read

PARIS — France's defence chief visited Mali on Thursday to reinforce her country's commitment to fighting Islamic extremists in the Sahel region of Africa, as anger broadened over a French airstrike that U.N. investigators said killed 19 civilians attending a wedding celebration.

Defence Minister Florence Parly said was in Bamako “to reaffirm all our support" for French forces in the region, and for training and strengthening Malian military efforts against resurgent terrorist activity, French Defence ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean told reporters in Paris.

While her trip had been long planned but not publicized for security reasons, it came as the French military force in Mali is under renewed scrutiny.

The United Nations mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, released a report Tuesday into a Jan. 3 French airstrike. The report said the strike hit a wedding celebration of more than 100 people in the town of Bounti, and killed three suspected members of an al-Qaida-linked group and 19 civilians, mainly local villagers.

France rejected the findings, while top U.N. officials stood by the report.

Seven international and local aid groups called Thursday for an independent investigation into the attack, and reparations for victims and their families.

“Anti-terrorist operations cannot be conducted to the detriment of international humanitarian law,” Oxfam France, Action Against Hunger and five other groups said in a joint statement. They called the January airstrike “disproportionate compared to the resulting military gain.”

Grandjean, the French Defence Ministry spokesman, said the strike clearly targeted a terrorist group and strictly respected humanitarian law. He said the report did not identify witnesses and included “no tangible material proof” that civilians were targeted.

“Let’s not be naïve. The war we are engaged in is also an information war, and our enemy is aware of this and is undoubtedly exploiting all debates," he said.

The French defence minister was accompanied in Mali on Thursday by the Estonian and Czech defence ministers in an effort to emphasize the involvement of European Union forces in training and other security efforts for the Sahel region.

The Associated Press