A video grab made available on March 30, 2021 shows aerial images of the area around the village of Bounti in central Mali,…
A video grab made available on March 30, 2021 shows aerial images of the area around the village of Bounti in central Mali, shot in late Jan. 2021 by the fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Division of the UN mission in Mali. (Photo by MINUSMA/AFP)

PARIS - France is rejecting a U.N. report that said a French air strike in central Mali in January killed 19 civilians as part of anti-terrorist operations in the Sahel.   

What happened in the village of Bounti in central Mali on January 3 remains a question that is at the heart of a dispute between France and the U.N. peacekeeping mission to Mali, MINUSMA. 

Earlier this week, a U.N. investigation concluded that a wedding celebration was hit by the French airstrike that killed the civilians and three armed men, allegedly jihadist members of the Katiba Serma militant group. 

For the past three months, French authorities have denied that anything they hit was a wedding party or that there was any collateral damage in such an operation.  

In remarks this week, French Defense Minister Florence Parly stood by her forces.    

FILE - French Defense Minister Florence Parly, wearing a protective face mask, leaves after a weekly Cabinet meeting at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on March 31, 2021.

Parly strongly denied any wrongdoing explaining that the military airstrike on January 3 near the village of Bounti was legit and targeted an armed terrorist group who was previously identified. 

 The French defense minister also cast doubt on the U.N. probe's methodology, claiming the investigation was based on unreliable sources.  

General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission with the United Nations, echoes these doubts.  

He says he is skeptical of the results of this investigation, claiming that most interviews were conducted on the telephone with villagers. According to Trinquand, Bounti is a known jihadist stronghold which would imply that testimonies would not be trustworthy.

Trinquand adds that people killed in the air strike were buried quickly, with no real verification at the site. The former general stresses his doubts about the report and he thinks that overall U.N. missions are against the use of force, which he says might explain the tone of the report.   

MINUSMA officials declined a request for an interview.   However, the U.N. mission shared an internal video recording on January 25th showing that U.N. investigators traveled to Bounti and the location of the airstrike, visiting the alleged burial site of those killed.   

In the video, Guillaume Ngefa, the head of the U.N. Human Rights and Protection Division in Mali, reassures that the methodology was sound.        

Ngefa describes how he and his investigation team went on the ground, visited the village and met the residents. He explains that group and individual interviews were conducted on-site to follow up interviews that were conducted remotely ahead of their visit as part of the investigation.   

Investigators met French officials twice in March to discuss the probe. France's embassy in Mali also submitted comments on the investigation's preliminary findings. 

FILE - A light armored vehicle (LAV) of the French force of the counter-terrorism Barkhane mission in Africa's Sahel region Barkhane is parked at the roadside crossing of the town of Gossi, center Mali, March 25, 2019.

The accusations come as public distrust in France is growing over the presence of 5,000 of its troops in the French-led anti-insurgent force known as Operation Barkhane in Mali.    

With these accusations, Trinquand says the support for the Barkhane force is at stake as France is presented as violating human rights. Therefore, he says, people in Mali could reject keeping the force on the ground and French public opinion could also go the same way.    

France’s defense minister arrived on Wednesday in the Malian capital, Bamako for meetings with the country’s top leaders.