France said on Tuesday it had killed dozens of jihadists in a weekend air strike in central Mali, while several villagers and a local group said up to 20 wedding guests were killed by a helicopter.
Social media has been buzzing with rumours since Sunday about events in Bounti, and villagers there told AFP that a wedding party was attacked by an unidentified helicopter.
Separately, French military headquarters told AFP fighter jets had “neutralised” dozens of jihadists in central Mali after the group had been tracked for several days.
“The reports relating to a wedding do not match the observations that were made,” an army spokesman told AFP.
With no early statements from French or Malian officials, rumours filled the gap.
Confirmation of reports is difficult in a remote area where many jihadists are thought to operate.
Offensive aerial operations in Mali are mainly conducted by the Malian military or by the French anti-jihadist force Barkhane.
Villagers in Bounti said a lone helicopter opened fire in broad daylight, sowing panic among a crowd gathered for a wedding.
‘Run for your lives’
“It was run for your lives,” said Ahmadou Ghana, who said 19 people died, two of whom were his brothers, and several others were seriously wounded.
“We were surprised by the intensity of the strike,” said another villager, Mady Dicko, adding: “The helicopter was flying very low.”
On Sunday, Tabital Pulakuu, an association that promotes the culture of Mali’s Fulani ethnic group, reported an “air strike that claimed the lives of at least 20 civilians” during a wedding.
A French military source who was familiar with Sunday’s operation told AFP: “There can’t be any doubts or ambiguity, there was no wedding.
“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.”
Bounti lies in the Mopti region, about 600 kilometres (370 miles) from the Malian capital Bamako.
The region became ensnarled in a jihadist offensive that began in northern Mali in 2012 and then advanced into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.