More than 20 civilians were killed by an unidentified helicopter gunship in Mali this weekend, on top of mounting French army casualties, according to reports.
The helicopter, flying at low altitude, opened fire on what was a wedding party in a remote desert region in central Mali on Sunday (3 January), according to health workers and locals speaking to the Reuters, AFP, and AP news agencies.
The helicopter appeared to be in pursuit of jihadist fighters on motor bikes near the villages of Bounti and Kikara, but ended up killing more than 20 people, including children.
The French military said it had carried out air-strikes in central Mali on the same day, killing dozens of Islamist insurgents, but denied involvement in the wedding, saying its targets had been first identified by a drone.
"Reports relating to a wedding do not match the observations that were made", colonel Frederic Barbry, a French military spokesman, told AP on Tuesday.
"There can't be any doubts or ambiguity, there was no wedding," a French military source also told AFP.
"This was a strike that was carried out after a particularly strict, multi-party process on a fully-identified armed terrorist group, after collating information, intentions, posture, in a studied area," the source said.
Two French soldiers were also killed by a roadside bomb in the Menaka region in eastern Mali while on a reconnaissance mission earlier on Saturday.
A jihadist group, Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin, a branch of Al Qaeda, the group behind the 9/11 strikes in the US almost 20 years ago, later claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Site Intelligence Group, a US private-intelligence company.
Three other soldiers were also killed last week in Mali by a bomb attack claimed by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, another Al Qaeda-linked organisation.
Meanwhile, between 50 and 100 villagers were also massacred on Saturday in Tchomo-Bangou in neighbouring Niger, near the Malian borer, by unknown gunmen.
The strike came after 34 people were killed in similar circumstances in Diffa, Niger, near its border with Nigeria, last month.
The UN says some 4,000 people died in fighting in the Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso "tri-border" area in 2019.
France currently has more than 5,000 soldiers in the wider Sahel region in an intervention in its former colonies which began seven years ago in the wake of the Libya conflict in 2011, when French-led air-strikes helped topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, destabilising the country, and prompting jihadists to flock to the area.
The EU also has two military-training missions in Mali and in Niger.
It suspended its Mali mission last August following a military coup in the country, but it is unclear if the operation later resumed work.
"It is known that some of the leading figures of the coup d'etat have also enjoyed training in Germany and France," German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters at the time.
"We don't train armies to be putschists," EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell also said.
"Ninety percent of the army has been trained by our mission, but the four most prominent [coup] leaders have not been trained by our mission," he said.