Despite several reports and local accounts, France rejects that its military operation caused civilian killings in Mali and the Sahel region.
An investigative report released on Monday by the London-based international law firm Stoke White documents that French airstrikes bombed a wedding, resulting in the killing of at least 19 civilians, in a village in central Mali last January.
“I heard the planes and then ‘Boom! Boom!’ After some time, we returned to the scene and found several people were killed,” a witness who requested anonymity, said in the report.
“There, I lost my cousins.”
The report contradicts the French dismissal of civilian fatalities and supports UN findings released last March.
On January 3, 2021, about 100 men and teenagers gathered in the village of Bounti in central Mali for a wedding. They prayed together and took shelter under trees in the semi-desert region. An hour later, French airstrikes hit, killing 19 civilians.
That’s according to the bombshell UN report by the peacekeeping force in Mali (MINUSMA) that constituted a rare criticism of French forces in the Sahel region.
Although the report was based on more than 400 interviews and the analysis of more than 150 documents, France questioned its credibility claiming the report is based on “unverifiable local testimony” and “unproven hypotheses”.
Paris still rejects it killed civilians to this day, claiming the airstrikes targeted 30 members of Katiba Serma, an armed group linked to Al Qaeda.
The French state said it had conducted an intelligence and surveillance mission in the region with its Reaper drone “for one hour” and followed a motorcycle carrying two individuals who joined “40 adult men in an isolated area”. That gave the impression to the French forces that they were members of the armed group.
“Can these old people hold weapons?”
Both the UN report and Stoke White report said that the French military came to the conclusion that a gathering of adult men coming together was enough to determine they were all members of an armed group or that there were not any civilians present.
“The incident illustrates that the French military is prepared to put civilians at risk of harm and fatality- which would result in a high likelihood of a war crime,” the Stoke White report said.
The author of the report, Khalil Dewan says both the French armed forces and the Mali government are yet to come clean and provide evidence that the gathering was not a wedding, and that France had “neutralised” members of a non-state armed group.
“The burden of proof remains with the attacking force, as the onus is on the one triggering lethal force, not the one on the receiving end, particularly when concerning civilians,” Dewan told TRT World.
The report tracked down a mobile phone video showing the four injured civilians talking about the attack in the Bounti village. The video which the report says, was authenticated by local sources and language analytics, was taken in a medical facility in Douentza, a few kilometres from the targeted village.
“These are the people who got hurt. This is the one whose hand was cut. The old man in the bed, his foot was wounded. A piece of iron went through his foot,” one man is heard saying in the video which was obtained by the investigations team of the law firm.
“They’re the ones accused of being jihadists. This one’s thigh is wounded. Can these old people hold weapons? Or even less, fight?” another man said.
Delina Goxho, an associate fellow at Egmont Institute in Brussels says, the use of drones is much more attractive for politicians because it is not costly for troops and is perceived as more distant by the public at home
“But by being less costly than using ground troops, airpower, in general, enlarges the battlefield - which may lead to the violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Goxho told TRT World.
The report, based on interviews with former American drone technicians, alleges that France’s intelligence and surveillance mission with its drone “highly likely had reach back to a facility in Europe; Ramstein, Germany.”
France is part of the European Partnership Integration Enterprise facility based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The facility amalgamates a coalition of intelligence, surveillance and renaissance capabilities of intelligence from the European countries and the US all in one facility.
“I don’t think it [operation] was all conducted in Mali, they used a Reaper drone. There’s a satellite connection to a facility in Europe and a US collaboration in the region. The analytical enterprise the US has might have been involved,” Cian Westmoreland, a former US drone technician who worked for the US drone program said in the report.
France’s over 5,000-strong Barkhane force was deployed to northern Mali in 2014 to dislodge fighting that has now spread to central Mali and into neighbouring countries Burkina Faso and Niger, deepening French involvement across the Sahel.
Thousands of French troops have been battling for eight years with the militant groups with no end in sight. The violence that started in 2012 in northern Mali has spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso, triggering a massive wave of human tragedy and a humanitarian crisis across the region.
Bounti attack is the tip of iceberg
As the violence spreads, the deeper French military involvement has gotten in the Sahel. Despite the deadly airstrikes in Bounti village, many civilian killings allegedly at the hand of French or Malian forces have gone unnoticed and have not been reported at all.
But Bounti is only the tip of the iceberg. The French military has so far admitted only to killing seven civilians since French troops set foot in Mali for the first time in 2013.
However, with the conflict-mapping non-profit Armed Conflict Location & Data Project (ACLED), The New Humanitarian revealed that over 50 civilians were killed by French forces between 2013 and June 2021.
The Sahelian.com, a news website focusing on the Sahel, calculated that at least 43 civilians in six different incidents have been killed in Mali since 2018.
Even after the international coverage of the Bounti attack, Malian civilians continued to die. In March, French airstrikes killed at least six male civilians between the ages of 15 and 20 who were out hunting birds and rabbits in the village of Talataye in northern Mali. As usual, France rejected the killings saying “intelligence and identity checks indicated the presence of an armed group”.
“The attack is in complete violation of international human rights and international humanitarian law. The French military is under a legal duty to investigate the civilian casualties,” Dewan said.
“But France has a systematic problem in admitting and identifying casualties and/or injuries as a result of its military actions,” Dewan told TRT World.
France’s deadly drone attacks seem to increase in the near future.
This month, French President Macron, who has looked for a way out of the costly war for a long time, announced a drawdown of French troops, reducing 5,100-strong troops by half. However, rather than leaving the region entirely, the French operation will count on its air power as well as collaborate with European and local armies, Macron said.
Delina Goxho says, whenever airpower is preferred to ground troops, the issue is with “the post-strike investigation and plausible deniability”.
She says the denial of civilian casualties by the airstrikes, “will be extremely problematic in the medium to long term” as that, in turn, will lead to more frustration among civilians.