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France urged to 'provide evidence' over Mali wedding party bombing

Events on 3 January have raised concerns over methods French forces used to differentiate between civilians and armed combatants, law firm investigating raid says
A French Reaper drone is pictured at a military base in Niamey, Niger, on 15 December 2019 (AFP)
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New York City

The French government is facing renewed pressure over the bombing of an alleged wedding party in Mali in early January, after a new report raised fresh questions about the incident which killed 22 people.

Witness testimony and forensic evidence published on Monday by UK-based law firm Stoke White Investigations (SWI) corroborated earlier reports that the French army had bombed a civilian gathering in the village of Bounti in central Mali on 3 January 2021, instead of a gathering of military targets as earlier claimed.

The report said that events on that day raised concerns over the methods the French military was using to differentiate between civilians and armed combatants.

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"It is highly likely that the drone-led airstrikes against the wedding in Bounti have infringed the laws of war by ignoring or failing to comply with the principle of distinction between combatants and civilians, or the principle of proportionality by killing civilians to attain a military advantage," the report concluded.

"France urgently needs to provide evidence on how it came to the conclusion that the wedding it targeted was in its perspective a gathering of members of a non-state armed group," the report said.

Since the incident, France has refused to share its intelligence or evidence that it had targeted combatants, only stating that the operation had been led by a Reaper drone and carried out by two Mirage-2000 fighter jets that killed "around 30" members of the Katiba Serma, an al-Qaeda affiliated armed group, operating in the area. 

The French government also ruled out the possibility of collateral damage.

US-EU complicity 

Khalil Dewan, head of investigations at SWI, told Middle East Eye that the use of surveillance drones opened up the possibility of US and EU complicity in the bombing.

"There's no denying that France isn't alone in counter-terrorism ops across the Sahel. There are US interests on the ground along with a European intel-sharing enterprise, which has been used in other conflicts associated with the war on terrorism," Dewan said.

"France is part of the European Partnership Integration Enterprise (EPIE) facility based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meta-data intelligence sharing from EPIE provides ‘reachback’, which permits several commanders from different countries and across multi theatres to access capability and execute targets in collaboration."

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Both the US State Department and the Department of Defence told MEE they were unable to comment. 

SWI's report comes three months after human rights activists called on France to probe the bombing after a damning UN report also concluded a wedding party attended by more than 100 guests had been struck.

The French government has rejected the UN's findings, calling into question its methodology, without revealing or disproving any of the findings of the report itself.

"While it is possible that members of an armed group were present, it is confirmed that they were not there to conduct or plan hostilities against the government of Mali, its civilian population or the forces of Operation Barkhane [the French-led operation against Islamist groups in the Sahel]," the SWI report said, adding that the victims were all men between the ages of 23 and 71.

"Fighters from non-state armed groups rarely gather together in Mali due to the threat of air strikes and drone surveillance."

'Systematic problem'

The SWI report also corroborates initial findings from Human Rights Watch (HRW), in which witnesses confirmed that guests had arrived from neighbouring areas for a wedding that had been planned more than a month in advance.

SWI said France's refusal to launch an investigation into the incident illustrated a systemic disavowal of the rule of international law and justice.

"France has a systematic problem in admitting and identifying civilian casualties. The mounting evidence on the Bounti wedding air strikes still has not triggered any investigations on part of France or the Mali government - none have approached the victims to date," Dewan said. 

In June, the independent New Humanitarian news agency said that the French military may have killed 50 civilians in Mali over the past eight years.

The French military did not respond to MEE's request for comment. 

French military bases in West Africa

Mali has been struggling to contain an insurgency that broke out in the north of the country in 2012 and later spread to neighbouring countries.

France intervened militarily in 2013 and currently has 5,100 troops across the Sahel as part of Operation Barkhane. 

In 2018, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) described central Mali as the epicentre of the country's violence. 

Since the insurgency began, thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced as civilians find themselves caught up between the Malian and French troops battling armed combatants.

The UN mission in Mali told MEE that it had no other comment to add over and above its initial statement released in January.