France faces rising calls to investigate Mali air strike

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - France faced mounting calls from rights groups on Thursday to open an investigation into an air strike by its forces in Mali that a United Nations probe said killed 19 civilians at a wedding party.

U.N. investigators published a report on Tuesday about the Jan. 3 strike, concluding that it killed 19 civilians and three armed men near the central Mali village of Bounti.

France, which has more than 5,000 troops in Mali and neighbouring West African countries to battle militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State, rejected the conclusions, saying it hit Islamist militants only.

Domestic and international advocacy groups, including the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH), Amnesty International and Oxfam France, demanded that France and Mali conduct their own independent investigations.

"We ask the Malian and French authorities to place the quest for justice at the centre of their action, notably through an independent and in-depth investigation," AMDH president Moctar Mariko said in a statement.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly, who arrived in Mali late on Wednesday to visit French and other European troops, did not commit to an investigation when asked by reporters.

"What we want is for this (U.N.) investigation, which was conducted in a unilateral manner, to take into account the arguments that we already wanted to emphasise the first time," she said on Thursday.

The French government has criticised the report's heavy use of witness accounts, which it said could be false testimonies by the militants' sympathisers or people under their influence. It has said its aerial surveillance allowed it to identify the targets as militants. It did not share that surveillance with U.N. investigators.

Parly said France would not be willing to publish those surveillance images, as it did after killing a senior al Qaeda leader last year.

"No army in the world has the habit of providing to its enemy the elements that would allow it to understand what we know about it," she said.

Mali's government, which in January backed the French account of the strike, has not yet commented on the U.N. report.

(Reporting by Paul Lorgerie and Aaron Ross; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)