French army chief slams UN ‘bias’ in report on Mali airstrike

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The head of France’s armed forces has slammed a UN report into an airstrike in central Mali which killed 19 civilians, saying it was biased and delegitimized the operations of the French-led Barkhane force there.

“Very clearly this (report) comprises an attack on the French army, the Barkhane operation (and) on the legitimacy of our engagements,” General Francois Lecointre told French daily Le Figaro in an interview published Saturday.

Lecointre said the UN report published in March into the January 3 airstrike, which said French forces had killed 19 civilians during wedding party celebrations near the village of Bounti in central Mali, contained “errors” and “bias.”

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France’s defense ministry, the French military and Mali’s government have backed the army’s account of an attack which they insist targeted extremists in a planned and targeted operation against an “armed terrorist group,” while denying there was a wedding.

Paris has criticized the UN report, with the defence ministry saying previously that it “contrasts unverifiable local testimonies and unsubstantiated hypotheses with a robust intelligence method used by the French armed forces.”

Lecointre told Le Figaro he saw the UN criticism as a blow to the French-led mission to stabilize conflict-wracked Mali, where thousands of lives have been lost and hundreds and thousands displaced by violence since 2012.

“I think we shall in future be systematically confronted by this kind of attempt which seeks to hamper us, to discredit us, to delegitimize our action and set local people against our action,” the general complained.

France, which has some 5,000 troops in the region under its Barkhane operation, which spans five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The mission, headquartered in Chad, was launched after France intervened to fend off an extremist advance in Mali in 2013.

Without such cooperation “this region will become a zone of chaos,” the general warned.

With France the former colonial power in the region, Lecointre said there was “less risk” Paris would be open to any accusation of flexing neo-colonialist muscle if it received wider European support in its mission to stabilize the region.

“It is necessary to share the effort between (EU) member states to be stronger,” he concluded, describing the European Union as “a global actor, as opposed to NATO, which is a military alliance.”

Several other European countries – Sweden, Italy, the Czech Republic and Estonia – have special forces on the ground in the Sahel alongside France as part of Operation Takuba.

Lecointre predicted that European forces would still be present in the region in a decade’s time, “probably more than they are today.”

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