By Paul Lorgerie and Tiemoko Diallo
BAMAKO, March 26 (Reuters) – Local officials in northern Mali accused France’s army on Friday of killing six civilians in an airstrike, but French forces said they had hit Islamist militants.
The incident, which occurred on Thursday in the remote Gao region, is the second time this year that France’s Operation Barkhane has been accused of killing civilians. The operation comprises more than 5,000 troops fighting militants in Mali and neighbouring countries.
Barkhane said the strike had “neutralised” a group of militants 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of In Deliman.
“This strike was ordered after a phase of surveillance and identification permitting the characterisation of the presence of an armed terrorist group,” it said in a statement.
But Mohamed Assaleh Ahmad, mayor of the nearby village of Talataye, said the victims were six male civilians from Talataye between the ages of 15 and 20. He said they were out hunting birds and had a single rifle between them.
“I know all these young people. Some are from my family,” he told Reuters by telephone. “We have seen these airstrikes in the past here. We have never said anything, but this time, it is 100% an error.”
Souleymane Ag Almahmoud, a former member of parliament from the area, also said the strike had killed six civilians.
Barkhane declined to comment beyond Thursday’s statement.
The United Nations is currently investigating a Jan. 3 airstrike near the village of Bounti that local residents said hit a wedding party attended by civilians. The French military denies that account, saying the strike killed about 30 Islamist fighters.
Barkhane troops are deployed across West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region, where militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State are waging a widening insurrection against national armies.
France is searching for an exit strategy eight years after it first sent soldiers to intervene in Mali against Islamist militants, but President Emmanuel Macron last month ruled out an immediate reduction of trops in the region. (Writing by Aaron Ross Editing by Gareth Jones)
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