Witnesses say 20 are killed in an airstrike in central Mali

At least 20 people have been killed in an airstrike on a village in central Mali where Islamic extremists had confronted a wedding party, witnesses said Tuesday.

The French military said “several dozens” of extremists were killed in a Sunday afternoon airstrike led by French fighter jets close to the village of Bounti. There was no immediate comment from the Malian government.

A French military spokesman, Col. Frederic Barbry, denied a connection between the strike and a wedding party, saying such a link “does not correspond to information collected prior to the airstrike.”

Barbry told the Associated Press the operation followed an intelligence mission of several days that showed a “suspicious gathering of people.” The French military was able to conclude it was a “terrorist armed group” based on individuals’ attitudes, their equipment and other intelligence information, he said.

The airstrike was part of a larger operation by French troops aiming at fighting Islamist extremists in Africa’s Sahel region. Several French soldiers were killed in Mali last week when an improvised explosive device hit their armored vehicle.

A man wounded in Sunday’s strike told The Associated Press that the extremists had approached a group of civilians who were celebrating a wedding and demanded that the men in attendance separate from the women.

“We were in the process of carrying out the orders when I heard the sound of an airplane and immediately a strike from above. Afterward, I didn’t see anything because I was unconscious,” the man said from a health center in Douentza, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Hamadoun Dicko, leader of one of the largest ethnic Peuhl organizations in Mali, said witnesses described two air raids on Jan. 3 in the village.

“There were at least 20 dead and more than 27 missing. I have personally lost two friends,” Dicko, who is president of the Tabital Pulaaku Youth Association, said.

Guillaume Nguefa, head of the human rights section of the U.N. mission in Mali, confirmed the incident but did not provide more details.