Several dozen civilians have been shot dead by gunmen who raided an area in northeastern Mali near the border with Niger, local officials and a Touareg self-defense group told AFP Thursday, December 13.
The attack, which took place early Wednesday, occurred in an area which has been badly hit by jihadist violence that has claimed several hundred lives this year, most of them civilians of Touareg or Peul ethnicity.
“Gunmen riding on motorbikes raided many areas in the southern part of the Menaka region and executed civilians from the (Touareg) Idaksahak community,” said the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, which spoke of 47 people killed.
That number marked a increase from 42 killed, according to a Wednesday MSA release, which said that “armed bandits” on more than 20 motorcycles “executed” civilians from the Idaksahak community between Tinabaw (20 km from Ménaka) and Tabangout-Tissalatatene (nearly 50 km from Menaka) on December 11 and 12.
The assailants moved back towards the Niger border after the attack, the MSA said.
Local officials, who confirmed the attack, put the number of dead at several dozen.
A Menaka official who wished to remain anonymous said he could not give an exact death toll as “by the time the Malian army arrived, MSA fighters had already buried the bodies.”
Another local official said he had been able to speak with one person hurt in the attack and transferred to Menaka, and accused the assailants of “firing on civilians.”
The regional governor’s office was not immediately available for comment on the attack.
Myriam Dessables, spokesperson for Minusma, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, did not give a figure for casualties but condemned the “execution of civilians,” urging the Malian authorities to investigate and bring those responsible to justice.
Dessables also said Minusma was deploying a human rights team to investigate what had happened.
In August, a panel of experts said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that inter-communal conflicts in the region were exacerbating existing tensions resulting from clashes between jihadists groups and international and Malian forces.
On September 29, at least 25 Tuareg civilians were killed near the Niger border, and on September 25, armed men on motorcycles killed at least 27 Tuareg people in Tinipchi, around 45 km west of Menaka.
The recent unrest in Mali began with a 2012 Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by jihadists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the north.
The insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, where local grievances are sometimes exploited by radical Islamists, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The groups have morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.
MSA split in 2016 from Tuareg separatist group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). It is part of a coalition with the Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defence Group (GATIA), which was established in August 2014 and is reportedly close to the Malian Army.
Both groups are part of the pro-government Platforme Coalition. In June 2015, Mali’s government signed a peace agreement with the Platforme Coalition and some armed groups in the separatist Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) alliance, but other insurgents remain active, linked to drug, arms and people trafficking in the vast Sahel region.
MSA and GATIA aid Operation Barkhane, France’s counter-terror mission across the Sahel region, encompassing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Its primary target is Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Around 4,500 French personnel are deployed to Operation Barkhane, and they work alongside the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops, as well as peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations’ Mali stabilization mission, Minusma.
With reporting from AFP