BAMAKO (Reuters) -A French air strike in January killed 19 civilians and three armed men at a wedding in the remote desert of central Mali, United Nations investigators said on Tuesday, contradicting France's account that only Islamist militants were hit.
The human rights division of the United Nations mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said it had visited the village of Bounti where the attack took place on Jan. 3, analysed satellite images and interviewed more than 400 people, including at least 115 in face-to-face, individual sessions.
"MINUSMA is able to confirm that a wedding celebration was held that brought together about 100 civilians at the site of the strike," the report said.
It said 19 people, including 16 civilians and three armed men who were attending the wedding, were killed immediately in the air attack, while three more civilians died while being transferred to medical care.
"There were five armed individuals among them (wedding party), presumed members of Katiba Serma," the MINUSMA report said, referring to an armed group affiliated with al Qaeda.
The French defence ministry rejected the report's findings. In a statement, the ministry said the strike followed a "robust targeting process" that identified the targets as militants.
"The only concrete sources on which this report is based are local testimonies. They are never transcribed, the identity of the witnesses is never specified, nor the conditions in which the testimonies were gathered," it said.
"It is therefore impossible to distinguish credible sources from false testimonies by possible terrorist sympathisers or individuals under the influence (including threats) from jihadist groups."
The French military said in the days afterwards that it had killed about 30 Islamist militants identified by aerial surveillance.
Local officials in northern Mali accused France's military last week of killing six civilians in another air strike. French forces said they had again hit Islamist militants.
France has been embroiled in an eight-year conflict in Mali, a former French colony, where Islamist insurgents with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State operate in the vast desert.
The groups have used bases there to carry out attacks across neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso, destabilising large swathes of West Africa's impoverished Sahel region.
(Reporting by Paul Lorgerie; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Edward McAllister, Bate Felix and Mark Heinrich)