France’s defence chief visited Mali on Thursday and defended a French airstrike there earlier this year that UN investigators said killed 19 civilians attending a wedding celebration.
Published on Tuesday, a report summarising the investigation’s findings concluded that a French air strike in central Mali killed 19 civilians on January 3.
“This strike raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of the conduct of hostilities,” said the UN report, which constituted a rare criticism of a French military operation in Mali.
The French defence ministry denied the account, insisting that it had identified and attacked an “armed terrorist group”.
Parly met Thursday with Mali’s interim President Bah Ndaw, telling reporters afterward: “I cannot allow the honour of our soldiers to be sullied in this way,” reiterating that the air strike had targeted armed men.
Parly reiterated that the French military followed a “rigorous targeting process” in accordance with international law.
“There were no women or children among the victims, and these strikes were intended to neutralize terrorist elements,” she said. “There is a difference between the realities of the facts and what is in this UN report.”
Seven French and Malian rights groups urged their respective governments to conduct an independent investigation into the central Mali strike on Thursday.
“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.”
Mali has been struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency which first broke out in the north of the country in 2012 before spreading to the centre and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
France, the former colonial power, intervened in Mali in 2013 to beat back the jihadists, and now has some 5,100 soldiers deployed across the semi-arid Sahel region.
Parly said France is determined “to continue our fight against terrorism”.
The French minister’s Czech and Estonian counterparts accompanied her at the meeting with the Malian president.
Together they announced that a multinational force, Takuba, has become operational in the region.
The force has 500 French soldiers at its core, and is expected to grow to 2,000 troops, who are to operate in close cooperation with the national armies of the region.
It has already seen Czech, Swedish and Estonian troops deployed in the region, though France has so far been unable to obtain significant support from its larger EU partners.
In Paris, defence ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean told reporters that the UN 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.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)