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French defense chief in Mali amid dispute over airstrike

April 1, 2021 GMT
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French Defense Minister Florence Parly looks on as she visits Telerad, a French designer and manufacturer providing civil and military solutions for aeronautical and maritime radio communication systems, Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Anglet, southwestern France. The French Defense Ministry on Tuesday categorically rejected that its forces in Mali attacked and killed civilians attending a village wedding fete in January, as a U.N. investigation has concluded. (Nicolas Mollo, Pool via AP)
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French Defense Minister Florence Parly looks on as she visits Telerad, a French designer and manufacturer providing civil and military solutions for aeronautical and maritime radio communication systems, Tuesday, March 30, 2021 in Anglet, southwestern France. The French Defense Ministry on Tuesday categorically rejected that its forces in Mali attacked and killed civilians attending a village wedding fete in January, as a U.N. investigation has concluded. (Nicolas Mollo, Pool via AP)

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — France’s defense chief visited Mali on Thursday and defended a French airstrike there earlier this year that U.N. investigators said killed 19 civilians attending a wedding celebration.

Defense Minister Florence Parly’s visit, which had long been planned but was not publicized for security reasons, came two days after the the U.N. mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, released a report on the Jan. 3 airstrike.

The report said the strike hit a wedding celebration of more than 100 people in the town of Bounti and killed three suspected members of an al-Qaida-linked group and 19 civilians, mainly local villagers. France rejected the findings, while top U.N. officials stood by the report.

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While visiting the Malian capital of Bamako, Parly reiterated that the French military followed a “rigorous targeting process” in accordance with international law.

“There were no women or children among the victims, and these strikes were intended to neutralize terrorist elements,” she said. “There is a difference between the realities of the facts and what is in this U.N. report.”

Seven international and local aid groups called Thursday for an independent investigation into the attack, and reparations for victims and their families.

“Anti-terrorist operations cannot be conducted to the detriment of international humanitarian law,” Oxfam France, Action Against Hunger and five other groups said in a joint statement. They called the January airstrike “disproportionate compared to the resulting military gain.”

In Paris, Defense Ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean told reporters that the U.N. report did not identify witnesses and included “no tangible material proof” that civilians were targeted.

“Let’s not be naïve. The war we are engaged in is also an information war, and our enemy is aware of this and is undoubtedly exploiting all debates,” he said.

The French defense minister was accompanied in Mali on Thursday by the Estonian and Czech defense ministers in an effort to emphasize the involvement of European Union forces in training and other security efforts for the Sahel region of Africa.

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Charlton reported from Paris.