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EXCLUSIVE: The French military has killed at least 43 civilians in Mali since 2018

TALATAYE, Mali — On the morning of March 25th, 2021, Adamou Ag Hamadou left his house in the village of Talataye, northeastern Mali. When he came back to his house on the outskirts of the village, his wife told him shocking news: there had been an airstrike in the area where three of their teenage children had brought their livestock to drink water.

Ag Hamadou, a sheep herder, from Talataye, northeast of Gao, Mali, immediately rode his motorcycle to the area where the strike occurred, 25 kilometers west of Talataye. There he found a bomb site and the remains of his three children, devastating him and his family’s community.

Two survivors of the attack, young herders who were friends with his children and who were at the same well told Ag Hamadou what had happened.

They had brought their animals to a well in a forested area outside the town. “They brought their animals to drink at this well. Then they went in search of some of their other herd, and took their two hunting rifles with them to hunt birds that would be used to make a sauce for lunch,” Ag Hamadou said. “In the middle of all their animals, Barkhane bombed them.”

“There were two other young herders who were nearby, but they were not hit by the strike,” he recounted, referring to the herders who told him what had happened. “They fled to a camp but were traumatized. People took them in and took care of them,” he explained.

“When I came to the site of the airstrike, there were other people from the camp already there. From 1 pm to 6 pm, we collected their body parts and buried them,” Ag Hamadou said.

In total, the Barkhane airstrike killed five young civilian teenage boys, according to Ag Hamadou and local elected officials. But despite the witness testimony, a spokesperson for Barkhane denied the attack harmed any civilians, and said the young men killed were jihadists.

The French airstrike in Talataye, a zone with little to no Malian government presence, was the latest in a series of airstrikes that have targeted civilians since 2018. The French military mission in the Sahel region, Operation Barkhane, has killed at least 43 civilians and injured five more in six different incidents in Mali since 2018, according to a Sahelien.com investigation that interviewed relatives of those killed, community leaders and local elected officials, Barkhane and the UN.

The overall numbers include the January 3rd, 2021 airstrike that targeted a wedding in Bounti, Mali, which was confirmed by a detailed UN report, but which French authorities say hit jihadist fighters. Françoise Dumas, president of the French parliament’s defense commission, called the UN report confirming the civilian deaths “information warfare targeting our credibility and legitimacy.”

French authorities have only acknowledged three of those civilian deaths and four injuries in two of the incidents and have not paid compensation to any of the victims’ families, family members and a spokesperson for Barkhane said.

There are roughly 5,100 French troops stationed across the Sahel under the auspices of Operation Barkhane, with the highest number stationed in Mali. The soldiers have been stationed in Mali since the January 2013 intervention that drove Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups out of the northern Malian cities and towns they had occupied for nine months.

Barkhane’s stated aim “is for the French forces to provide broader support to the G5 Sahel Member States,” meaning Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad. They carry out regular airstrikes and ground operations to “neutralize terrorists,” primarily in northern Mali and Burkina Faso. The main groups it fights are Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) and ISIS in the Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS). The former colonial power has generally denied killing civilians in the course of its military activities.

One of the largest attack on civilians since 2018 by French troops occurred on February 7th, 2020, in the Tuareg camp of Fatawada, outside Adiora, Mali, according to two eyewitnesses to the attack and a relative of someone who was killed. All three asked not to be named for fear of reprisal from Operation Barkhane.

Adiora is a predominantly Tuareg and Fulani commune in the Timbuktu region’s Gourma Rharous circle. The economy is based on livestock and trade. A cattle herder who was in Adiora on February 7th described that Barkhane had bombed jihadist militants who were active in Fatawada the previous day.

Members of a nomadic camp who had gathered in Adiora drove over to Fatawada to bury the men who were killed according to religious custom, when a Barkhane drone bombed them, killing between a dozen to 30 civilians who were present during a gathering of nomadic camps in the area, the eyewitnesses said.

“There was a bombing in the afternoon on unknown motorcyclists not far from our camp. Nobody wanted to see what happened until the next day, when people decided to go and bury the bodies. In our religious custom, we never leave a body lying around like that, especially since they were in the middle of our camps,” a 53-year-old shepherd present that day told Sahelien.com.

“Those who did not go to the pastures or their places of work went to bury the bodies. It was around 8 am when I heard another detonation. I was about five kilometers from the place but I thought that the bomb had fallen on my head. I lost a brother and other close acquaintances. the next day I left the camp like several dozen other families, and since then I have not set foot in this area,” said the shepherd, who was interviewed in Gao, where he and his family have sought refuge.

Another 29-year-old eyewitness confirmed the airstrike killed many civilians. “There have never been strikes on civilians before. We’ve been hearing detonations often to the west and south very far from our area for years, but never so close. This was the first time moreover it was on a significant number of civilians. No one can give you the exact number of those who were killed that day, I personally knew 11 people among them, simple Tuareg shepherds,” the man, who is also a shepherd, said. “There was a transport vehicle passing through Fatawada for Adiora’s market that day, and all the passengers died in the same strike. People waited for weeks before burying their bodies for fear of other strikes,” he added.

A relative of one of the civilians who were killed explained that “the transport vehicle was a pick-up truck, and it left Gossi with passengers who had attended the weekly market. The vehicle stopped at a nomadic camp called Fatawada, 40 kilometers between Adiora and Ouinerdane. As usual, people (civilians), some on foot, others on camelback, stopped next to the vehicle. Some asked for the latest news and others greet their brothers and sisters,”

“There had been an airstrike the day before, and one person asked the owner of the vehicle if he could help them to go and look for the bodies of the people killed in that strike. When they started talking about looking for the bodies, a drone strike hit them and killed at least thirty people: young, old, women, teenagers, and one child less than three years old,” the relative said.

A spokesperson for Barkhane denied that the February 7th airstrike targeted civilians, saying that “no civilians were killed,” and that everyone who was killed was a jihadist combatant.

On June 9th, 2019 in Razelma, a small village outside Timbuktu, French soldiers opened fire on a vehicle carrying three civilians, including a young child. All three civilians in the car were killed. A spokesperson for Barkhane told French newspaper Libération that the that the pick-up truck did not stop after warning shots were fired, so the soldiers fired directly at the vehicle, which exploded in flames because it was carrying “a large amount of gasoline.”

Those claims could not be independently confirmed and the director of a nearby school who knew the people killed said denied that they could have been driving directly at Barkhane soldiers. A spokesperson for the French defense ministry told Sahelien.com that “no civilians were killed” during this incident.

“The incident took place in the early afternoon. These people were helping a family that was moving from Inatane to Agaghayassane. Another family was waiting for the vehicle for another move. On their way back in the morning, they encountered the French army, who opened fire on them for no reason until the vehicle and the people inside burned,” Ahmad Ag Handoune, a relative of the men and boy killed told Sahelien.com.

Ag Handoune said that the French soldiers “took gasoline and poured it on the vehicle to set it on fire so that nothing could be identified.” He said that when he and other relatives approached the vehicle in their own car, that the French soldiers in the area pointed their weapons at them and demanded that they stay put. Ag Handoun and the other relatives refused and continued walking towards the car. When they told the French soldiers they recognized the vehicle because of a dent in the rear passenger door, the soldiers said they were mistaken. Ag Handoune said eyewitnesses told him they saw soldiers burning the vehicle at night after the incident.

None of the family members have received any compensation, and Ag Handoune said the case should be investigated by the UN or Malian and French authorities. “We don’t even know where to turn for justice or compensation,” he said. “We are only nomads on our land, we have no other place to go.”

On September 20th, 2020 outside the northern Malian city of Gao, home to a large French military base, French soldiers fired on a passenger bus, killing one and injuring two. A spokesperson for Barkhane said the bus would not slow down at a checkpoint after warning shots were fired. A spokesperson for the French defense ministry confirmed that the French soldiers killed civilians on the bus.

On August 26th, 2018 in Infoukaretan, 50 kilometers southwest of Menaka, a Barkhane force airstrike killed Mohamed Ag Almouner, one of the main leaders of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS). But the strike also killed two civilians (a woman and a teenager) and injured two others, according to relatives of those killed. A spokesperson for the French defense ministry confirmed the civilian deaths and injuries in this incident.

A spokesperson for the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, declined to speak directly about the French military strikes targeting civilians. “I will not comment on specific allegations,” MINUSMA spokesperson Olivier Salgado told Sahelien.com. MINUSMA published a detailed report on the January 3rd, 2021 airstrike on Bounti, concluding that it killed 19 civilians.

Amnesty International West Africa researcher Ousmane Diallo said that Barkhane’s attacks on civilians merit a closer look. “I think this deserves further investigation and possibly even judicial litigation,” he said. “Since the incidents take place in remote areas where various armed forces operate, [the French] have greater latitude to qualify the victims as members of armed groups a posteriori, based on their minimalist interpretation of international humanitarian law. Anyone who interacts with a suspected member of an armed group can be the victim of a strike, without respect for the principles of proportionality and necessity. We saw this with Bounti,” he explained.

The defense agreement between France and Mali stipulates that any legal inquiry into the described French attacks on civilians in Mali would be under the jurisdiction of France. According to article 15 of the agreement, “the competent authorities of the home state (France) shall have priority in exercising their right of jurisdiction with regards to any infractions committed by military personnel in the performance of their official duties.”

So far, no legal investigations are forthcoming with regards to any of the attacks described in this article.