Mali’s government on Thursday broke its silence in a controversy over a deadly attack in the centre of the country, supporting France’s assertion that its warplanes struck jihadists, while villagers say a wedding party was hit.
The French military, rejecting any mistake, insist their operation was a precision raid by fighter jets on a jihadist group, carried out after extensive surveillance.
Several dozen jihadists were “neutralised”, according to French military headquarters.
Several villagers told AFP that a wedding party was attacked by a lone unidentified helicopter. The death toll was put at 18 by a local group representing the Fulani (Peul) ethnic community.
The two versions relate to what happened on Sunday afternoon in the Douentza/Hombori area, a remote part of central Mali plagued by jihadists and ethnic strife.
A statement posted on social media by the Malian defence ministry on Thursday supported the French account.
It said about 50 suspected members of the Katiba Serma jihadist group had been spotted late Sunday morning.
“The observed surroundings did not show any wedding scene, children or women. All information received in real time justified that the neutralised targets were confirmed military objectives,” it said.
The Katiba Serma is affiliated to the Al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
The ministry said that about 30 jihadists were “neutralised” in strikes by a French Mirage 2000.
The strikes were carried out under Operation Eclipse, a joint operation gathering armed forces from Mali, France and the G5 Sahel, a coalition that includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger as well as Mali, it said.
The ministry added that an inquiry was being opened “to better understand what happened.”
The wedding party was attacked at Bounti, according to villagers there.
Only Mali and France carry out offensive air operations in Mali, where there are also UN troops and forces from other nations.
Social media postings suggesting a catastrophic mistake by the military began to circulate after the weekend, although no images of what purportedly happened at Bounti have surfaced.
The French military ended its silence on Tuesday after AFP obtained testimony from villagers in Bounti.
It said categorically that it had aimed at a jihadist group whose movements had been monitored for days, and that a helicopter was not involved in the operation.
The Malian defence ministry statement did not mention Bounti, and did not give other details.
Independent verification of Sunday’s events is extremely difficult, given the remoteness of the location and danger of travelling there.
The very differing accounts, especially the description of a helicopter, have sparked some speculation that two attacks in separate loctions occurred at roughly the same time.