Malian soldiers killed during a French military strike in northern Mali in October were hostages of Islamist militants, not deserters turned jihadists as French authorities say, Mali’s president said in a newspaper interview.
Malian and French officials gave contradicting accounts of the October 23 strike on a camp of the Ansar Dine militant group, which the French army said took 15 Islamists “out of action”.
France’s defence minister has said her services had “factual information” showing the fighters were all jihadists, including ex-Malian soldiers enroled by Islamists, contradicting comments from the Malian defence ministry.
In an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, Malian President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita insisted that was not the case: “They were the terrorists’ hostages and there should be no ambiguity about that between our French friends and us.”
“It’s regrettable, it can unfortunately happen in this type of operation. We should admit it and not look for reasons that don’t exist.”
The Malian government is struggling to contain Tuareg and Islamist violence in northern Mali, some of which is spreading south. Attempts to place officials in northern towns have sometimes failed, raising questions about government’s ability to maintain stability ahead of elections.
Islamist militants seized northern Mali in 2012 and French forces intervened a year later.
Around 4,000 French troops remain in West Africa’s Sahel region as part of Operation Barkhane
France has been at the forefront of organising a regional force as part of efforts to find a long-term strategy to exit the region.