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HRW urges investigation into French air strike in central Mali

Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged France and Mali on Thursday to investigate a recent French airstrike in the centre of the Sahel state, which residents said killed dozens of civilians.Several residents, and an association promoting the Fulani ethnic group, have said that on January 3 a helicopter attacked the village of Bounti during a wedding party, killing about 20 people. Separately, the French military said a fighter jet had struck a jihadist group at a location north of the village, killing several dozen combatants.It rejected any mistake, denying that a wedding party had been hit or that it had struck women or children. In addition, the jihadists had been monitored for several days and no helicopter was used on the strike against them, it said. On Thursday, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on both France and Mali to “promptly and impartially” investigate. “Serious allegations that any civilians were killed in airstrikes need to be promptly investigated to determine the legality of the strikes under the laws of war,” HRW researcher Jonathan Pedneault was quoted in the statement as saying. The watchdog added that it had interviewed three Bounti residents who, independently, said that male wedding guests had gathered separately because of gender-segregation rules imposed by jihadists operating in the area. “They said that the wedding had been planned over a month earlier and that people had come from other towns and villages to attend,” the HRW statement said.Two other rights groups, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Malian Association of Human Rights, have also called for an investigation.Mali’s defence ministry on January 7 backed the French account, saying about 30 members of the Katiba Serma jihadist group were “neutralised” in strikes by a Mirage 2000.Independent verification of the events is extremely difficult, given the remoteness of the location and danger of travelling there.The 13,000-strong United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Mali, known as MINUSMA, has already launched its own inquiry. Mali has been struggling contain a jihadist insurgency which first broke out in the north of the country in 2012, before spreading to the centre and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.French troops first intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive back the jihadists. France currently has 5,100 troops deployed across the Sahel region in its Operation Barkhane.

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