FILE - In this May 19, 2017 file photo, a French soldier stands inside a military helicopter during a visit by French President…
FILE - A French soldier stands inside a military helicopter in Gao, northern Mali, May 19, 2017.

Officials in Mali on Friday accused the French military of killing civilians in a Thursday airstrike. 

Reuters said the number of killed was six, while AP reported at least five deaths. 

The incident happened in the western Gao region of Mali and was the second time this year France has been accused of killing civilians. 

The French military reported the strike had killed a group of militants 60 kilometers north of Deliman. 

"This strike was ordered after a phase of surveillance and identification permitting the characterization of the presence of an armed terrorist group," it said in a statement, according to Reuters. 

The strike was a part of Operation Barkhane, a effort led by the French military to root out Islamic extremism in the Sahel. The operation began in 2014. 

Local officials claim those killed were civilian males aged 15 to 20, and that they were hunting birds with one gun among them. 

"I know all these young people. Some are from my family," Mohamed Assaleh Ahmad, mayor of the nearby village of Talataye, told Reuters by telephone. "We have seen these airstrikes in the past here. We have never said anything, but this time, it is 100% an error." 

The United Nations is investigating a January 3 incident near the village of Bounti. Local officials said a French airstrike hit a wedding party, killing 10. The French military denied the account and said it killed 30 extremists. 

Al-Qaida-linked extremists have been waging a widening campaign against national militaries across the Sahel.